Jason is the third generation in his family to farm this land. After working in the corporate world, Jason had the opportunity to buy out his uncle and began farming the 2,500 acre farm in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois full-time in 2003.
The Lay farm grows a rotation of corn and soybeans. For the last nine years, Jason has utilized strip tillage for his corn acres. He added no-till on soybeans in 2011. Jason has also added cover crops to his practices, primarily using rye grass, and occasionally oats and crimson clover. He currently has 200 acres in cover crops.
Increased testing is one of the biggest improvements Jason has made in his farming practices—testing soil and stalk nitrate levels. Jason also uses Variable Rate Technology to precisely target what his soil needs in nutrients and when.
“I am personally impressed with the partners that have come together as part of the Soil Health Partnership. Corporate partners, conservation partners and farmers—all working together toward the same goals. I plan on farming for a long while, and we have to be smarter as an industry how we do things. I can help bring about that change by adopting new practices and setting an example for others to follow.”
Ryan grew up on a dairy farm, but his family sold their cows in the ‘90s and rented out the ground. After graduating from college in 2013, Ryan persuaded his parents to let him rent their 160 acres and has now grown his operation to 450 acres. He also has a cow-calf operation consisting of 40 beef cows in Garretson, South Dakota.
Ryan attempted conventional tillage the first five years he farmed, but he experienced soil erosion. After hearing a speaker talk about transitioning to no-till, he decided to try it. He also started conducting his own comparison tests between no-till and conventional planting, while simultaneously experimenting with cover crops.
With limited labor and assets, Ryan has found no-till saves him money because he doesn’t need as much equipment or horsepower, and he saves valuable time by not doing tillage.
Ryan’s trial started with a no-till field where he interseeded a cover crop mix into v3 standing corn. Following the corn harvest, he planted rye, which he will terminate before no-tilling soybeans next spring. Ryan’s plot is looking at the effects of cover crops and no cover crops in the same field. He will be establishing a cover crop every year for the next five years.
These same conservation practices have major value for the cattle side of the farm as well. Ryan implemented strip grazing cover crops and pasture in the summer, which provides 2-7 days’ worth of feed at a time to his cows. Strip grazing has allowed him to better ration his feed, ensure the cows are not eating all the most nutritious grass first, and keep his feed quality consistent. He saves time not having to haul as much manure because it’s evenly distributed.
Justin Knopf believes the better the soil is functioning, the better the relationship between the plants and the soil biology, resulting in healthier crops. He is invested in building better soil on his farm in Gypsum, Kansas where he grows wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa and triticale with his dad and brother.
Justin needs the soil to be functioning well to effectively capture rain in heavy rainfall events, to prevent erosion, and also to store water to make it available when plants need it.
He is conducting an enhanced practice trial on their SHP plot over five that will consist of adding a cover crop to any open window between grain crops compared to the same system with no cover crops.
This research will allow Justin to compare how extending the growing season with cover crops, and how maintaining living roots in their soils for a longer period each year affects their unique crop rotation.
Justin has already seen enhanced soil biology with the presence of living roots throughout the year along with increased diversity and more opportunity to capture carbon and put it into the soil.
Kirk and Tiona Kimble are the fifth generation farming their 2000 acres in Chillicothe, Illinois. They are invested in preserving this family heritage for their three daughters, all of which help on the farm today.
Kirk has used numerous covers and combinations through the years: cereal rye, annual rye, vetch, oats, radishes, sunflowers and sun hemp. He puts a cover crop on every acre.
“I know I have my topsoil and it isn’t washed down the river. It’s a justifiable cost,” he said.
Kirk also practices no-till on every acre. When Kirk began farming, he tried no-till to save money by not purchasing more equipment, and he liked the results. With the big rain events occurring more frequently, Kirk says it just works well on his land for keeping erosion at bay.
He soil tests regularly, and depending on the results, does either variable rate or blanket rate application of nutrients. He does not do fall application of nitrogen.
“I believe in the practices that I have implemented, but the Soil Health Partnership is documenting them scientifically,” said Kirk. “I like seeing what is happening in my soil, year over year, and understanding how I can make it better. I like being part of a group that is promoting soil health and conserving our soil resource.”
Guetterman Brothers Family Farms is a row crop operation with a rotation of soybeans, corn and winter wheat on more than 10,000 acres in Eastern Kansas. They also operate a bonded grain elevator. Hayden Guetterman returned home from college in 2017 to farm full time and is part of the 5th generation, farming alongside his grandpa, dad, and three uncles.
Conservation has been a family value passed down in this farming family. Their farm takes pride in reducing soil erosion and improving soil health. Hayden joined SHP to learn data that will support if recommended practices would be beneficial to their farming operation, because although they have always been on the cutting edge of implementing soil health practices, they have not done much on-farm research.
Currently, Hayden is experimenting with cover crop trials to see how quickly they can improve soil organic matter and soil biology. Already he has observed increased organic matter, more earthworm activity, and the soil’s ability to hold moisture longer during dry spells.
SHP’s ability to help them collect and analyze data saves them time and helps them make informed decisions about their soil health practices. The farm also looks to SHP to help them define soil health success.
Carl Eliason is a fourth-generation farmer on a mission to improve soil health and organic matter on his 240 acres of corn, soybeans, and small grains in Renner, South Dakota.
After sharing his experiences trying no-till and cover crops on social media, a local Soil Health Partnership field manager reached out to Carl. He joined SHP because he is interested in gaining real-world experience with soil health practices and wants the scientific evidence to prove the practices work.
His current trials include no-till versus conventional tillage. He also plans to start trials with aerial broadcasting of rye cover into corn, along with no-tilling soybeans into the rye the following year.
Since implementing no-till and adding cover crops, Carl’s farm no longer has soil moving down the hills, along with minimal erosion. He has also experienced better yields since implementing the 3-way rotation. He prefers no-till to conventional tillage because he feels that the ground is mellow and has less crusting, allowing for better emergence. He also reports using significantly less fuel.
Dave Moose can already see the benefits of no-till and cover crops on his Illinois farm—more worms, more organic matter and better soil retention. But he wants to see quantifiable research that will clearly spell out the pros and cons for every farmer interested in pursuing these practices.
The Moose farm is a 1400-acre row crop operation with soybeans and corn. Dave started farming with his father in 1976. He first got into cover crops in 2011. Dave has been no-till on his farm since 1985 but added cover crops to provide additional organic matter into the soil that he wasn’t seeing from no-till alone. His cover crops include cereal rye and crimson clover, with occasional rapeseed and tillage radishes if the season allows.
“Just as with no-till, we had some bumps with cover crops early on,” he said. “But I am committed to cover crops. I want to see how this is going to work long term.”
Dave knows that it will take more substantive proof to get others on board. He joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2014 because he wanted definitive research to lay out the benefits of cover crops. And he wants to fully understand the downsides as well, so everyone knows the reality.
“It’s very important what we do with our land,” Dave said. “I think there’s going to be more rules and regulations headed our way, and they will target how our practices impact the watershed. We need to get ahead of these regulations and show what we can do.”
A third-generation farmer, Kerry Knuth started out farming with his dad and grandfather. Today, Kerry and Angela Knuth farm 2,200 acres with their two sons Gregory and Garrison in Mead, Nebraska.
The Knuths moved to no tillage for their soybeans and corn, including some strip tillage for some corn acres in 2005.
“We like the cost savings we’ve seen on no-till. We don’t have to own tillage equipment and we don’t have to run it across the field,” said Angela. “We have been pleased to see no decrease in yield. We’re hoping to see that continued decrease in our cost of production and improvement in the soil tilth and microbe activity.”
Since 2012, the Knuths have been moving toward a more diversified rotation alongside traditional corn and soybeans. They have added wheat, sorghum sudan grass, and cover crops for grazing into their rotation, and are beginning the transition process to non-GMO/organic on a portion of their acres.
“We joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2017 because we want to learn how to make our soils better, regenerate them and we need help with that,” said Angela. “We’re not scientists and we want to know how these practices improve our soil. We look forward to learning more with the partnership.”
Learning more is starting with fall soil sampling and building a history of each farm. The Knuths look forward to combining that data with the latest software and hardware technology to create and apply a plan for each field.
Prices and yield: two of a farmer’s biggest concerns in any given year. For SHP farmer Steve Berger, soil conservation is one of his concerns—and he firmly believes it benefits his bottom line.
Steve and his family raise corn, soybeans, and pigs in southeast Iowa. Steve’s father had a began implementing no-till on the land in the 1970s and it was a natural progression for Steve to begin putting in cereal rye.
“No-till was certainly helping with erosion remediation but it wasn’t adding organic matter like cover crops do,” says Steve. “I know that if we build organic matter, we boost our corn yields further. Soybeans are already increasing because of cover crops and no-till.”
Steve acknowledges change doesn’t come easily. But he points to the Soil Health Partnership and peer groups as a good way to learn and receive support to make the transition from conventional tillage to reduced tillage and cover crops.
“You don’t just go from an intensive tillage operation to no-till without some challenges,” he said. “That’s why a lot of farmers just don’t adopt. These peer groups from the partnership are a good way to help work through those challenges.”
Steve adds farmers still need to make a living, which is why data gathered by SHP could be helpful. As an early adopter, he has seen strong improvements in his soil – and his yields, which track above-average – from years of cover crops.
“I think it’s possible to marry the two ideas of soil conservation and crop production, and the Soil Health Partnership is the perfect group to do this,” he said.
Brent Bible has practiced no-till farming and used cover crops for several years on some of his nearly 3,000-acre farm using a scattered approach without measurable results. By joining the Soil Health Partnership, he takes a more disciplined approach, looking for a better understanding of soil health, improvement in his operation’s efficiencies and enhancement of his bottom line.
Five years ago, Brent began using cover crops on several fields. He also implemented precision farming—grid soil sampling and applying fertilizer using GPS.
“We are more precise about fertilizer placement, timing and quantity,” he said. “We don’t want to waste money or harm our soil by applying too much fertilizer.”
Brent hopes that with the focus and discipline of the SHP, he will be able to compare and contrast his soil and crop performance and really learn something that makes a difference.
“Being in the partnership will allow me to look at trends over time that improve my soil’s health,” he noted. “It’s a more disciplined approach that forces me to focus on cover crops and no-till over a five-year period.”
Even early in the program, Brent began to see a difference with the cover crop implementation and how his soil looks and behaves.
“We are doing something unique and exciting with the Soil Health Partnership that will keep these fields sustainable and pumping out great yields long beyond my lifetime,” he said.