John Mesko: (00:31)
Welcome back to the People of Soil Health Podcast. When farmers sign up to participate in the Soil Health Partnership, it's often with a very simple goal in mind: to learn. Whether they're interested in changing their tillage practices or adding cover crops to their rotation, many of our growers collaborate with SHP so they can learn what works on their farm and do it with the support of experts. One of those farmers who has been committed to learning and experimenting is with us today. Daryl Maple, welcome to the show.
Daryl Maple: (01:04)
Thanks, John. Really appreciate the opportunity to be here and talk with you about soil health and our journey towards improving our soil.
John Mesko: (01:12)
That's great. I appreciate you taking us with you on that journey, and your willingness to share what you're learning with others. So that the folks listening can get to understand your perspective, can you tell us a little bit about your farm?
Daryl Maple: (01:29)
Sure. Sure can. So I am a part of the fourth generation here on Maple Farms. My great-grandfather purchased the original 160 acres that we operate on today. He purchased that back in 1930, lived here, had four kids, my grandfather being one of the four. So we fast forward 90 years to today, and today Maple Farms GP operates in a partnership with my dad and his two cousins, and then myself and my brother will be generation four, part of that family. We are located in north-central Indiana, about an hour north of Indianapolis, and operate a large-scale family farm. We were very blessed to have a group of owners who each specialize in different areas, and we can share the workload across the five of us, and it makes it for a nice symbiotic relationship with each of us.
John Mesko: (02:33)
I think that's a great story. The longevity, the multiple generations, and the expansion of the business to include, as you say now, multiple owners, each bringing their expertise to the table, is really I think a good recipe for success. And we talk about sustaining farm operations over several generations, I think that's great. It's exciting to hear that. I know that you have been working with Soil Health Partnership since about 2016. Tell me what got you interested in being a part of the program and what ultimately led to your decision to enroll.
Daryl Maple: (03:12)
Yeah, great question. Thanks for asking. So we were approached, one of my cousins is involved in the ag industry and came across a field manager at the time who was looking to sign people up for Soil Health Partnership. And my cousin came to us and said, "Hey, you guys would probably be a really great fit for this if you want to look at some different techniques down the road." So we met with the field manager and he kind of went through the spiel about what SHP is and what they're trying to do, and try to help improve farming practices across the Midwest. We were really intrigued. It was interesting and refreshing that it was basically up to us what we wanted to study and how we wanted to study it, but also it was daunting because we were trying to figure out what we wanted to study and how we wanted to study it.
Daryl Maple: (04:06)
We had been conventional tillage, corn, soybeans, and a little bit of a wheat rotation for forever and ever. The cover crop thing and reduced tillage was something that we had kind of landed on and decided that we wanted to look at doing some reduced tillage with a strip-till pass, following a bean crop, and planting corn into those strips to reduce some passes of tillage. And then with the cover crops thing, it was kind of coming out, getting fired back up again at that point. And so we decided that we would try to look at some cover crops to incorporate into our cropping mix and see what that would do as well.
John Mesko: (04:48)
Now I have the good fortune of being familiar with that part of Indiana. I spent a good bit of my career working with farmers throughout Indiana, but also in your area. That's some pretty good soil you've got there right around that part of the state.
Daryl Maple: (05:04)
Yes, we are very blessed. We have pretty good soils. It's just something, to be honest, some of the soil health practices have just kind of gone by the wayside a little bit, just because we're very blessed and we have good crops year in, year out. And so for my family and most of the farmers in this area, we just do what we've always done, it's always done tillage. We're trying to bridge that gap and figure out how to do reduced tillage and still get the high yields and produce the high quality, high value crops that we like to grow on this farm.
John Mesko: (05:40)
And I think ... I point that out because a lot of times we work with farmers all over the country, and there is a very wide range of soil types, soil conditions, productivity levels. And it usually is the folks that are on some of the more marginal soils, maybe some of the more challenging climates, whether that's further north, or further south, where people are looking to do something different because they're trying to gain an advantage or trying to kind of catch up to what we might consider some of the high productivity soils like what you have there in central Indiana.
John Mesko: (06:16)
And I think it's really interesting that you all are eager to learn more and to experiment and to push your already productive soils further ahead, or at least maybe hold on to those all very productive soils. Is that part of the decision-making process when you think about, "Well, we've got this great soil, maybe we should try to do everything we can to maintain it?"
Daryl Maple: (06:41)
Yeah, no, exactly. So it just ... As you go through all the literature and you see different pieces about soil erosion, and the cover crops aspect, and trying to improve the soil and keep it there instead of removing it through air, wind, and water. It just became an idea of my brother and I, and thankfully the generation three – my dad, Mark, and Scott – they are very willing to look at new techniques and practices.
Daryl Maple: (07:15)
Even if they're not on the cutting edge, we're still somewhat at the front early adopters. And we just wanted to find ways to make our farm more sustainable. That word has been a very big buzzword the last four or five years. And so sustainability means different things to different operations and growers. For us, we're trying to find a way to be economically sustainable, and environmentally sustainable as well.
John Mesko: (07:47)
Yeah. I mean, I think that's the key. Sustainability is a very overused term and everybody really needs to think about what it means for them, and then pursue that. So tell us a little bit about your SHP trial. What does it look like? How are you going about trying to address the concerns that you've got? And eventually we want to hear some of the things you've learned so far.
Daryl Maple: (08:11)
Sure, yeah. So our SHP field is on roughly 70 acres and we have about 48 of it in the trial. And so we've got strips of our control, and strips of our treatment. And so for years when we grow corn, so we will come in and strip-till the bean stubble in the fall, prior to the spring planting. We'll do those, and the strips that are in the treatment portion of it. And on the control portion, we will come in and do our fall conventional chisel plow, and these strips are roughly 120 feet wide, and the field's about a half mile long. So we've been in the program long enough now that we pretty well can tell where each strip is. But they're say 120 foot, and we just go straight and keep it all together so we can plant and harvest it and separate it.
Daryl Maple: (09:12)
So then the following spring will come in and we'll field cultivate the conventional strips, but leave the strip-till ground alone. And then we'll come in and plant it and just make a few minor planter adjustments for each strip that's been strip-tilled versus the conventional tillage. And then after that, the rest of the corn crop is the same. Then the following year we'll come in and the area that was strip-tilled, we will not till it. So do a no-till test, and then we'll do the conventional tests where it had been conventionally tilled and field cultivated the year prior.
Daryl Maple: (09:54)
So that's kind of what the two year rotation looks like there. And then I forgot to add that we have been aerial applying cover crops on the strips in the no-till section of the trial to try and to see if we can see any benefit to the cover crops, and just learn more about that if it has any effect to the yield component or a soil health component.
John Mesko: (10:18)
Okay. So your trial is fairly large, and pretty elaborate. I mean, this sounds like there's quite a bit going on there. Do you find that over time, I think you've been around now for quite a few years with this job, do you find that you get started down this road of learning something and you realize, "Oh, okay. So let's adapt or make a change to our practices?" Or maybe you're taking some of these learnings and applying them in other parts of the farm, and then trying ... Maybe tweaking that, asking a little different question, and then learning some more. Help us understand the impact or the importance of staying with the program and implementing things that you're learning over time. How does that work for you guys?
Daryl Maple: (11:03)
Sure. So one of the nice things with the Soil Health Partnership is we have these 48, or really 24 acres, that we were studying the first several years. So we didn't have a strip-till rig at first, and so we went and we got a demo unit, a four-row demo unit, and did it that first year with that. And it was all good. We had cover crops established, they looked good until we trampled them up with the tires from the row crop tractor. And then ... So then we said the next year we said, "We need something bigger so we can get the cover crop to live." So we rented an eight-row strip-till rig. And so you had some rows, a cover crop that lived, and some with the tires that didn't live. And so we're, "Okay, so we need something bigger yet."
Daryl Maple: (11:54)
So we ended up settling on a ... We actually purchased a 12-row strip-till rig, and we still have a little bit of issue with some of the cover crop not making it because of the compaction from the tires of the tractor, but the other rows do pretty good. And once again, our main focus was on the tillage side –can we reduce some costs and still be productive? And then the cover crops are kind of a bonus. But it is kind of disheartening when you spend the money on the cover crop and a third of it dies. Anyway, with the strip-tillage piece of it, we have kind of gone incrementally into where ... This year 90% of our corn acres are on strip-till acres. The cover crop, we're still trying to figure that piece of it out, but we're up to about ... Almost 300 acres of cover crop that we sowed in the fall of 2020.
John Mesko: (12:55)
Okay. So you're seeing the strip-till program go from the trial to the rest of the farm over this timeframe. What kind of results are you seeing? Obviously it's a positive impact you're seeing, because you're expanding the number of acres of strip-till, but what do you like about it? How's it benefiting based on some of those goals you had when you got started?
Daryl Maple: (13:18)
Yeah. So the big thing for generation three around here is they really like the ability to till somewhat deep, in that eight- to ten-inch range, especially ahead of a corn plant. And so they really love that with the strip-till, basically we're going down and tilling right below where the corn seeds going to go, that soil has been worked and they liked that aspect of it. And so that those roots will get down and get to going. We also liked the idea of the soil that's been unworked in between it, and just for some more stability for the field and just leave some more of that area unworked and reduce a tillage pass as well. So we really like that.
Daryl Maple: (14:06)
We've seen ... It depends on the year; some years the strip-till is slightly ahead, some years or some fields it's even, and some years or fields it's maybe slightly below a few bushels. But all in all, it's been pretty much a net positive to it for us. So we're, we're really happy with how it's turned out, trying to just keep going forward with that. Now most of the guys still think that we need to incorporate some tillage into the program. And so they're still leaning towards doing a conventional tillage pass after the corn, and then ahead of the soybeans with the cultivator. But we're still studying that on the SHP trial to look at continued returns, how that does long-term. So we're still evaluating the no-till piece on the beans and seeing how that does. And hopefully ... My hope is at some point we can start to transition some more acres over to some no-till in the soybeans.
John Mesko: (15:09)
Okay. That leads me to another question then: if you're tilling in a strip-till program, just the seed row, but you're going down eight inches, what types of changes in horsepower needs are you seeing? What are you using to pull that strip-till rig compared to the conventional tillage?
Daryl Maple: (15:30)
Great question. So it would probably ... The short answer would be a reduction in overall horsepower. So typically we've had ... Well, I suppose it wouldn't be a reduction, it'd be about the same. The size of the tractor is the difference. So we have roughly a 350-horse tractor pulling a 15-foot chisel plow, and we have a 370 front-wheel-assist tractor horsepower pulling a 30-foot strip-till rig. So essentially the horsepower is about the same, give or take. Now you could have more horsepower to go deeper if you wanted to, but for us that tractor is in our fleet and it matches up pretty nicely with what we've got going on. So, and our corn planter is a 60-foot planter. So when we're stripping, we're doing half of the planner. So we have to use the technology of the GPS to ensure that our lines are straight, and so that those strips are in the right spot, come the following spring so that all that matches up just perfectly.
John Mesko: (16:37)
Mm-hmm. And are you on 30-inch rows?
Daryl Maple: (16:41)
We are on 30 inch rows, yes.
John Mesko: (16:43)
Okay. So really your strip-till rig is twice as wide as a chisel plow. So, yeah. So you're getting more done with a similar sized unit there.
Daryl Maple: (16:55)
Exactly. Now, that was part of the cost analysis as we were going through this is, "Okay. We can be as productive or more productive with a strip-till unit in the fall tillage, plus eliminate spring tillage pass. So that all played into the trying to figure ... Run the scenarios of how this thing was going to turn out.
John Mesko: (17:20)
I'm just curious. I really don't even know how ... In terms of speed when you're ... I'm guessing the strip-till rig is a pretty slow moving machine. Because you got to be accurate, you got to put those strips in the right place. What kind of speed do you travel compared to the chisel plow?
Daryl Maple: (17:41)
So for our soil, we basically, there's no real difference. It's that five and a half to six miles an hour with it, whereas the chisel plow was five and a half to six miles an hour with it. So we really don't lose any speed on it. We gain on the width and the efficiency of the tool. We lose a little bit on the end rows, as we're trying to get everything back in the corner and get everything squared up just perfectly. Whereas the chisel plow, you can just go and fix it in the spring. But the way we look at it is you're basically planting in the fall. You're setting everything up in the fall, so that in the spring you can just jump in and go.
John Mesko: (18:18)
Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's great. Now you mentioned aerial application of some of the cover crop seed, how's that working? And have you also ever done cover crops with say a broadcast seeder or some other, some other tool?
Daryl Maple: (18:32)
Yeah. So a great question here. So the way we started with the Soil Health Partnership plot, we were trying to get it in early enough to get it established and germinated so that we could get some growth and some benefit before an early frost or a winter killed. And for us, we just seem to kind of struggle up here in this northern Indiana time zone. Maybe I just need to do more research on it, but we just have a hard time getting the crop off to go in and direct seed it and get a lot of good growth. Now 2020 was a good year, so we were able to be able to do that. But the ariel broadcast seeding has just been the quickest and easiest for us to try to get in and, and see some results with this.
Daryl Maple: (19:20)
A couple of years ago, our local co-op offered the opportunity to put some cover crop seed in and blend it with a broadcast seeder as they put on some fertilizer. So we took advantage of that and tried some of that. And we did that the last two years. And then last year we ... they spread it and then we took a high-speed disc to incorporate it. And then we actually went in and made some strips behind that, which is two tillage passes. So I'm not super crazy about it, but we were trying to compare the incorporation of the broadcast seeder and the disc versus versus the airplane.
Daryl Maple: (20:02)
So we had about half of our acres in 2020 with an airplane, and half the other way I just described. And you really couldn't tell any difference between the germination and the stand. It all looked really good. So I'm hoping that we can do some more broadcasting and disking in, lightly incorporating the cover crop seed to get it to germinate. We are getting a high-speed disc to have, and it's going to be equipped with some sort of a box seedar that we can do that. And some of my hope is to start incorporating more with a disk going forward and only use the airplane if we feel like we're going to be limited on our timing window.
John Mesko: (20:44)
Oh, that's really interesting. Everybody that we talk to has a little bit different protocol for how they're going to go about this. And it's really interesting to hear how your approach has changed as you've learned different things along the way. Most of the farmers we work with have access to one of our SHP field managers on a regular basis. And those folks really do a good job sharing what they're learning from other farms that they work with, or other farms that we work with across our whole program. A lot of farms that we work with have an agronomist, either private or one that's affiliated with a co-op, or something like that. How do you work with your advisors when it comes to making decisions around your approach to soil health? Tell us a little bit about how these different folks contribute to your effectiveness there.
Daryl Maple: (21:43)
Sure. And I guess to go back real quick to that other question on the cover crops, if it was up to me, I think I'd really like to see us use some sort of a high-boy applicator and put it in the crop in-season. But locally there's not anybody really close by that would do that. There's some guys 40 minutes away or something, so that's not real far, but it's hard for them to justify to come up here and just do a smattering of acres. But to your most previous question, the talking to our field managers and agronomists was very, very critical to us trying to nurture this hankering for reduced tillage and cover crops along the way. Honestly, it was something that we hadn't really discussed out loud as a group before the opportunity presented itself for soil health.
Daryl Maple: (22:36)
And so then, once we kind of started talking to the field manager and starting to generate some questions, we asked lots of questions to our field manager. We kind of don't have an on-staff agronomist. There's an agronomist with our co-op. So we asked him some questions. We had some agronomist friends through seed companies, so we asked some of them some questions, and then the opportunity to attend some field days, or SHP meetings, and learn about guys that hae tried ... Cover crop mix XYZ, or ABC, so this one didn't work, or that one worked really well. And so just being able to network with other farmers was very beneficial also. So it was just a really big collective pool of information and trying to pull from different trusted sources and figure out what worked and what didn't work. And then we could step our toes in the water and try it ourselves and figure out what works or doesn't work for us as well.
John Mesko: (23:43)
Mm-hmm, yeah. This is a great story that you're telling, the journey that you've been on. I'm curious, what's next? What do you see of interest that you and your colleagues there at Maple Farms are interested in exploring? Where do you see this going down the road? So you see more of these practices being implemented? You mentioned that you're trying to move a little bit more towards no-till, what's the next round of learning look like for you?
Daryl Maple: (24:14)
Yeah, well we are in this phase right now of ... We've got two sets of tillage equipment. We've got chisel plows, and we've got strip-till, and we've got field cultivators. And so we are in the process of downsizing, a field cultivator and a chisel plow, and getting a high-speed disc, and losing ... Taking two tractors and just getting one in a trade. And so we're starting to reduce some equipment dollars and try to free up some capital that way and just have less overhead costs. So that's been a very recent change that we're doing here in that regard. And with that purchase of the disc I, think I mentioned this earlier about getting the seeder so that we can put a cover crops on with it. We're enrolled into a CSP contract to do, like I said, those 300 acres of cover crop, but my hope is that we'll start to venture outside of those limitations on that, and try to do more acres of cover crops and do different species.
Daryl Maple: (25:22)
The CSP is nice in the fact that they gave you kind of an outline and say, okay, this is what you have to go plant. And so that’s just what we plant on all those acres, but it's a little rigid at times. So there's times I'd like to be able to just go try a cover crop or two or one of a different mix than we're using currently outside of those bounds. And so the SHP gives us the flexibility to do that, but we just haven't found a real good way to mix it in with the CSP acres. Once again, if we get outside those CSP acres, I think we could try some different mixes and try some different things. We've got a field of wheat that this summer I'd like to throw some cover crop into, and cause we're going to do some tiling and see if there's a yield benefit by putting it out way, way early in the summer and see if there's anything going on there. So lots of little things I'm tweaking, nothing really major at the moment other than those things.
John Mesko: (26:21)
Oh, that's great. Always learning, always experimenting and trying to improve. I mean, I think that is ... And we talked early on here, but sustainability, and it's a buzzword, and everybody has kind of has their own view of it. I think that's sustainability. Recognizing that you can't always do the same thing. Things are changing and you all are changing with it.
Daryl Maple: (26:44)
In our opinion, sustainability is not sustainable if you can't physically, economically make it happen as well as. I mean you can't make everything just perfect for the environment and then go out of business. So you've got to find some sort of a happy medium there and that's what we're trying to figure out.
John Mesko: (27:00)
Yeah. I think it's great taking it into consideration, you're already on some really good ground. You guys are looking to make it better and keep that sustainability going. And that's what it's all about. And that's one of the things that's really important to the work of the Soil Health Partnership. So I am grateful for you taking us on this journey with you and we're learning as much as you are there too. So I appreciate it very much. I've enjoyed this conversation, Daryl, so thank you. And best of luck coming up in 2021.
Daryl Maple: (27:31)
Great. Thanks a lot, John. Appreciate it. Appreciate the opportunity to share just the cusp of what we started to learn down here and how we're trying to apply some of it.
John Mesko: (27:41)
Fantastic. Thank you so much.