Jason Lay

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.”

Kirk Kimble

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.”

Angela Knuth

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.

Terry Bachtold

Terry Bachtold of Strawn, Illinois, has been farming his entire life. He grew up with cattle and hogs along with an annual rotation of oats, soybeans, corn and hay.

He appreciates cover crops to naturally increase organic matter and values the return to the old ways via a shorter term, similar rotation system.

“We have come a long way in technology as far as nutrient management, but I think the next leap forward is going to be improving soil through practices like cover crops and no-till,” said Terry. “Organic matter is basically what holds the soil together. If you don’t have organic matter, you’re not going to raise a crop.”

Terry is also interested in cover crops because of their ability to suppress weeds and hold nitrogen for use by growing plants in the next crop year.

He’s hopeful that incorporating cover crops will reduce his commercial application of nitrogen, but only time—and research with the Soil Health Partnership—will tell.

“As you increase the organic matter, you also increase the amount of nitrogen as it decomposes from plants will release back naturally,” Terry explains. “Each one percent of organic matter is basically 20-30 pounds of nitrogen that’s available to the crop and gets released every year out of your soil.”

New Nutrient Management Profiles Published

In partnership with The Fertilizer Institute (TFI), SHP published two profiles discussing SHP farmers who are implementing soil health management practices and the changes in their nutrient management strategy.

Properly managed nutrients and soil health can provide economic and environmental benefits; however, cropping systems are complex. Nutrient management decisions must align with soil health management decisions for optimal results. 4R Nutrient Stewardship provides a framework to achieve cropping system goals, such as increased production, increased farmer profitability, enhanced environmental protection, and improved sustainability.

The two profiles discuss mobile macronutrients and immobile macronutrients.

Profile: Immobile Macronutrients – Phosphorus and Potassium

Potassium helps strengthen the plant’s ability to resist disease and plays an important role in increasing crop yields and overall quality, including strengthening the plant’s root system. Phosphorus is linked to a plant’s ability to use and store energy, being necessary for overall growth and normal development. Phosphorus and potassium nutrients are typically lost through surface water, washing away the fertilizer source or erosion.

This profile highlights two U.S. farmers who incorporate 4R practices into their soil health management system to keep the phosphorus and potassium they apply in the soil.

Profile: Mobile Macronutrients – Nitrogen

Nitrogen fertilizer is commonly applied to row crops, such as corn, to improve yield and quality of the harvested crop. However, nitrogen that is not used by a crop or leaves the field can be released into the air(ammonia and nitrous oxide), surface, and groundwater (nitrate).

This profile highlights two U.S. farmers who incorporate 4R practices into their soil health management system to optimize nitrogen use.

Check out other SHP resources here.

Profitable cover crops in West-Central IN

Mike Buis and his brother Jeff Buis on their West-Central Indiana farm

Business Case: Mike Buis

Farmer Profile

  • Working with SHP since 2016
  • Experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field
  • Total farmed area is 3100 acres
  • Planting corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation

Mike plants a wheat cover crop each year on approximately 300 acres of highly erodible land (HEL). Although he is not required to do so, adding cover crops to his HEL ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion.

INTRODUCTION

Mike Buis farms 3100 acres of rolling farmland just west of Indianapolis with his brother, Jeff. They own 1400 acres and rent 1700 acres. Most of Mike’s cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation. Mike began working with the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) in 2016 to experiment with cover crops. On his SHP research field, he trials a cereal rye cover crop before soybeans, and an oats and radish mix before corn. Experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field prompted Mike to integrate a wheat cover crop on 300 additional acres. We focus on the economic benefits of his wheat cover crop management practices because he has adopted the wheat cover crop at scale.

SHP Central & Southern Indiana Field Manager John Stewart and Mike Buis
SHP Central & Southern Indiana Field Manager John Stewart and Mike Buis

Wheat Cover Crop Management

  • Mike plants a wheat cover crop each year on approximately 300 acres of highly erodible land (HEL) because he likes the flexibilty of a large planting window and ease of termination.
  • Seeds bin-run wheat cover crop* at approximately 60 lbs/acre for a total seed cost of $5-$6/acre.
  • Broadcasts cover crop seed with fall fertilizer application immediately after harvest and incorporates both with Salford tillage tool (turbo till/vertical tillage).
  • Terminates wheat cover crop in the spring before it heads out, or when it’s approximately 12-14" tall, by burning down with an herbicide application (wheat is not harvested).
  • Plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter (no spring tillage).
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Measuring the impact of Cover Crops on Soil Health on the SHP Research Field

On his SHP research field, Mike is trialing a cereal rye cover crop before soybeans, and an oats and radish mix before corn (four strips with cover crops and four without any cover crop). This has given him the opportunity to experiment with cover crops in addition to wheat.
SHP sampled soils on Mike’s research field in 2016 and 2018 (before and after implementing a cover crop). Based on these results, average soil organic matter for the cover cropped strips (but not the control strips) increased significantly between 2016 and 2018 (at 99% confidence level; see graph). Increases in organic matter often result in improved soil structure and function. This means Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops.

Without the cover crop, Mike estimates that he would need to apply a higher rate of herbicide—or a more costly mix—that would cost him at least an additional $10 per acre in weed control.

Estimating the weed control benefit of the wheat cover crop

  • After termination, the residue from the wheat cover forms a thick mat on the surface of the soil.
  • The cover crop residue effectively acts as a mulch that can suppress weeds and disrupt conditions for the germination of weed seeds.
  • How much is this reduced weed pressure worth? With a cover crop, Mike’s herbicide costs run approximately $8-$10/acre for a glyphosate and 2,4-D mix. Without the cover crop, Mike estimates that he would need to apply a higher rate of herbicide—or a more costly mix—that would cost him at least an additional $10 per acre in weed control.

Highly Erodible Land (HEL) and Soil Health Practices

Conservation Compliance provisions were originally enacted as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. They require that farmers like Mike who grow crops on HEL use conservation practices (such as reduced tillage) to be eligible for federal programs such as disaster assistance, conservation programs, or crop insurance premium subsidies. Although he is not required to do so, adding cover crops to his HEL ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion.

Economic Takeaways

Cover crops were a good fit

Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost for seeding or terminating the cover crop except for the seed cost.


Spending less on weed control

Mike found that he needed to use fewer herbicides during the growing season due to his wheat cover crop. Being able to put a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase his use of cover crops.

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*Why is there no additional cost for seeding the cover crop, or burning it down in the Spring? Because Mike spreads fall fertilizer and incorporates it, there is no additional cost to seed and incorporate the cover crop. There is no additional cost to terminate the cover crop because he uses a similar herbicide program to control weeds (in a minimum tillage system without cover crops) and terminate the wheat cover crop (in a minimum tillage system with the wheat cover crop).

You can find a print version of this business case by clicking the button below.