21. John Stewart – Innovative Approaches to Cover Crop Seeding

It’s no secret that, when it comes to cover crop seeding, farmers are always trying to balance a tight timeline and impending weather in the fall. Especially during wet or cold autumns, getting into the field in a timely manner after cash crop harvest – and being able to give your cover crop enough time to germinate and emerge before winter – can be a challenge.

But what if you could streamline processes by planting your cover crop while you are already in the field doing other things?

In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, host John Mesko sits down with SHP Field Manager John Stewart to discuss a new project in Kentucky seeking to answer that exact question.

“A lot of farmers buy their cover crop seed and have a great goal of getting harvest done earlier and being able to get out there and drill it in or broadcast it in or maybe apply it with a VT tool,” Stewart says. “But farmers understand how tight timing is in the fall and that window closes very rapidly.”

In order to help farmers save time and reduce passes across the field, SHP is studying new and different approaches to cover crop seeding. The project is funded by a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) and done in partnership with Kentucky NRCS and The Nature Conservancy. Stewart says the partners are really focused on the “innovation” part of the CIG program.

“We wanted to take a look at cover crop seeding methods that might be a little bit different than what a lot of farmers are doing,” he says. “Each farmer is different with their goals. A few of these trials are going to be looking at seeding cover crops with a cover crop seeder unit that’s actually mounted on the combine [body]. One of the farmers has a focus of a good amount of biomass for livestock grazing. And some of the others are more looking at the erosion side, getting a cover crop established pretty quickly to help [reduce erosion].”

To hear more about the details of the SHP program in Kentucky and the data we are collecting, listen to the full episode of The People of Soil Health in the player above or in your favorite podcast player.

Setting Yourself Up for Success in the New Year

The start of a new year provides opportunities for fresh beginnings. It also gives us the chance to reflect on the past and consider what we want for the future. As you consider your soil health approaches for the new year, here are three ways you can set yourself up for success.

Look back on past experience

As you think about your soil health work last year, ask yourself: What worked? What could stand to be improved upon? What do you still need to learn?

If you planted cover crops this past fall, how did that fit with the time you had available? Did the weather cooperate like you had hoped? Did you use a seeding method that worked well for your operation, or would you choose something else in the future?

If you tried a new method of tillage – perhaps strip-till or no-till – what did you think of it? Would you do anything differently if you took that approach again? Do you have questions that still need to be answered?

So often, we’re moving quickly – shifting from one to-do item to the next. However, if we can take some time to reflect, it may uncover things we should keep in mind moving forward or gaps in our knowledge or experience that need to be filled.

Set goals for the next 12 months

In our on-farm research, we are learning over and over again that the farmers who see the most impact or learn the most from their soil health work are those who come into a new or adjusted management practice with clear goals. Here’s just a few objectives our farmers have called out:

  • Reduce erosion, especially near waterways
  • Increase microbial activity
  • Build organic matter
  • Make fewer trips across the field
  • Improve soil structure to help with moisture management during adverse weather conditions
  • Incorporate cover crops as part of a nutrient management approach

While each farmer’s goals are unique to their operations, those who set clear, measurable targets are often better able to adjust their actions along the way because they know what they’re trying to achieve. Something else that’s interesting: many of our farmers don’t have a laundry list of goals – they hone in on one or two key areas that would make the biggest difference, and then build upon the progress they make over time.

Say ‘thank you’ to the helpers

In addition to looking backward and forward, the new year is an excellent time for gratitude. In our soil health work, just like in so many areas of our lives, there are plenty of people and organizations that help us out when times get tough, provide resources, and share their expertise.

Who can you reach out and say ‘thanks’ to for their role in helping you get this far? That could include:

  • Family
  • Employees
  • Neighbors
  • Lenders
  • Agronomists
  • Suppliers and equipment dealers
  • University experts and Extension educators
  • Friends
  • Peer groups, such as those in commodity or general farm organizations

It’s easy to take people for granted, so as you set yourself up for success in the new year, pencil in a few moments to show your appreciation for those who help make this work possible.

Digging In

We know there’s a lot on your plate and that the work of farming never ends – but neither does the learning process. So we encourage you to block off some time in your calendar this month and prioritize these three activities. Ask yourself: What did I learn last year? What, specifically, do I want to achieve moving forward? Who can I reach out to and let them know how much I appreciate their help? By taking a purposeful approach to the new year, we create a greater opportunity to set ourselves up for success – no matter what that looks like in your individual farm or business.

20. Jason Lay – Making the Most of the Resources You Have

Many farmers would look at Jason Lay’s operation in Bloomington-Normal, Ill. and count him as one of the lucky ones. Rich, productive soils. Supportive landowners. Neighbors who are interested in what he’s doing on his farm. But, according to Jason, that doesn’t mean he can get complacent.

I’ll just start it off by saying this isn’t our grandfather’s farm anymore. It’s not cows and plows. We’re a lot more complex. We’ve got a lot more technology. We’ve got a lot more tools at our disposal,” he said in this conversation with SHP Senior Director John Mesko on The People of Soil Health Podcast. “And with that said, our consumers are a lot more educated as well. So we not only need to be telling our story – [we need to be] doing the right things and being sustainable to make sure that we’re leaving the ground in a lot better place than when we found it.”

For Jason, that means implementing conservation practices like no-till and strip-till, as well as working with Soil Health Partnership on a cover crop trial. Throughout all of his approaches, he’s looking for ways to feed a crop and build soil health most efficiently.

“The main reason behind the strip-till is to band the nutrients and be absolutely as efficient as I can possibly get with where I put those nutrients. And I don’t want that corn plant trying to search for its groceries per se,” he shared. And when it comes to his SHP trial, “What I’m trying to do is basically analyze, through the use of cover crops: is it changing the soil health of that field relative to what would have been my more conventional practices?”

Jason knows he’s fortunate, which is why he continues to invest in improving his land and making the most of what he has.

“I use a very simple motto: do more with less. It’s so simple, but yet it’s so true. Why do you need to make your life any more complex than it already is? I have to wear I don’t know how many hats throughout the course of the year and I needed to learn how to do more with less.”

To listen to Jason’s and John’s full discussion, check out The People of Soil Health Podcast in the player above or subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player.

19. Mikayla Tabert – Diversification and Innovation are Key at Trinity Creek Ranch

If you could choose only three words to describe Trinity Creek Ranch in Red Lake Falls, Minn., you would probably land somewhere in the realm of diversification, innovation and family.

That combination of values is why we’re so glad to have Mikayla Tabert from Trinity Creek join us on The People of Soil Health Podcast. The farm – which was started by Mikayla’s grandfather in the 1950s and now includes her husband and parents – raises everything from 150 cow-calf pairs to a diverse crop rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, peaola, alfalfa, cereal rye and sunflowers.

“We’ve got a lot going on but, with the four of us working, it does help to manage that,” Mikayla says. “[Diversification] helps us be a lot more resilient. You know what crop commodity prices can be like, or you get a wet year, dry year, certain crops do better than others. We like having that diverse mix so that we can have a fail-safe. And if all else fails, we always have the cattle.”

Trinity Creek Ranch enrolled in their SHP trial in 2019 with goals to build soil organic matter and decrease the amount of synthetic inputs applied. In their first two seasons, Mikayla says, they’ve already started learning a lot, including the impact of cover crops on weed control and how a wider variety of soil tests can be used to measure success and change over time.

“Our goal is to have that healthy functioning soil that doesn’t need a bunch of inputs to have a productive crop.”

Learn more about Trinity Creek Ranch’s approach to soil health by clicking the player above or listening to this episode in your favorite podcast player.

You can also keep up with the activities at Trinity Creek Ranch on their Facebook page or by following Mikayla and her dad, David, on Twitter.

17. Ben Gleason – Soil Health Awareness is ‘Mission Accomplished’ at IA Corn

Iowa Corn has several major goals that drive programs and projects for their sustainability platform:

  1. Protect and improve the land, water, and natural resources
  2. Minimize regulations on farmers that could potentially reduce profitability
  3. Maintain farmers’ social license to operate
  4. Be a leader in sustainability, making sure that sustainability is a part of all programming

Ben Gleason, Sustainable Program Manager for Iowa Corn, gets the opportunity to work for Iowa farmers on all of these goals, leveraging partnerships with different stakeholders to move the needle on sustainability in the agriculture industry.

One area he is focusing on is reduced tillage. Tillage changes are one opportunity for farmers to impact on-farm sustainability and have become more prominent as awareness increases. Gleason says the state isn’t all no-till by any means, but is seeing strip-till gain in popularity as it is often “the best of both worlds” – tillage where you need it and residue everywhere you don’t.

Regarding cover crops, Gleason said, “We have seen a big, big jump in cover crops, which is fantastic. We went from virtually zero acres to about two million acres. I think we’ll be well over that this year with an early harvest that will allow more cover crop acres to get seeded.”

Iowa farmers are also experimenting with other practices, like nutrient reduction wetlands, which Gleason says are effective to manage nitrogen loss.

“We’re making progress. We have got a long way to go. Obviously, our water quality issues didn’t pop up overnight, so we’re not planning to solve them overnight either. But we have got a lot of momentum going, and we would like to keep it that way,” he said.

Iowa Corn also has a history of connecting Iowa farmers with the Soil Health Partnership, with both organizations really stressing farmer-to-farmer, peer-to-peer learning. They believe that works best.

“Soil health awareness is huge now. I think that mission is accomplished. [Soil health is] part of the decision-making process now, I believe,” he said.

Learn more about Iowa Corn’s specific water quality and sustainability programming, as well as how they are facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning during a global pandemic, by clicking on the player above or listening to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

15. Lisa Kubik – Taking Consistent, Incremental Steps to Build Soil Health

For Lisa Kubik, SHP Field Manager in eastern Iowa, learning about soil health is a two-way street.

“Honestly,” she says, “Working with SHP, I learn as much from my farmers…as they probably learn from me, which is really unique and really neat.”

One of those farmers is Roger Zylstra from central Iowa, who has been conducting an on-farm research trial for the past five years, and is featured in a new SHP business case. In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, Lisa sits down with Senior Director John Mesko to talk about what the Zylstras have been learning and how that information can be used by other farmers.

“There are so many ways to do soil health and improve your conservation on your farm. And there’s really no [one] right way to do it,” Lisa says. “It all depends on your current…operations, how you manage your system. Being open-minded and being flexible is really part of the most important thing when increasing conservation and increasing the soil health on your farm.”

In their discussion, John and Lisa also dive into how her family is implementing soil health practices on their own farm, including reduced tillage, cover crops, and rotational cattle grazing.

Listen to the entire conversation at the link above or subscribe to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.