By Matt Reese
Starting out as a first generation row-crop farmer offers plenty of challenges. To help overcome some of those, Nathan Brown — the 2018 Ohio No-Till Council Outstanding No-Till Farmer —started no-tilling on his Highland County farm.
Though he did not grow up on a farm, Brown began working for a nearby farm when he was young, which allowed him to get started on his own. In 2012, he started no-till to help make the transition to farming on his own a little easier.
“Originally we started working everything but I realized really quickly that tillage wasn’t going to be feasible if I was going to expand the operation. I remember chisel plowing ground in April or May when I was back in high school and watching the neighbors who were no-tilling out planting. I realized that as much as I love to do tillage, I really hate to do tillage,” Brown said. “With the labor and the fuel, I very quickly realized no-till was going to be the best fit for the operation. We started no-tilling soybeans first into corn stalks and got along very well with that and quickly transitioned to no-till corn. The soil types in this part of the country seem to fit no-till better than others. If you can give it the extra day, our ground will dry out and most ground around here has some type of tile under it. We are not flat and we have some roll. When we were doing tillage, the amount of topsoil we were losing made us consider no-till too. We have highly erodible soils and soils that are conducive to no-till.”
No-till set the stage for the use of cover crops in 2015. Brown started learning more about cover crops from Ed Winkle, who farmed about two miles down the road.
“I watched some of the things he was doing with cover crops and cereal rye. He ended up passing away not very long after that. He was very vocal about using cover crops,” Brown said. “The economics really drove us to transition into no-till, but the soil loss, especially with the excessive rains we’ve had, pushed us into cover cropping. With no-till we still have low places that tend to gully out when you get these big rains. We transitioned to cover crops to alleviate some of that.
“We first sowed cereal rye 6 or 7 years ago into corn stalks going into beans. The ground has some good
roll to it. When we spread fertilizer that fall, we had the co-op put some cereal rye in with it. At first we just did 100 acres here or there to a get a feel of what worked and what didn’t. We were planting into 6-foot tall rye right away. We had planned on terminating it but that didn’t happen and we didn’t have any problems at all.”
Now Brown is farming over 1,000 acres and is working towards getting it all covered each year.
“We got 750 drills and started doing more cover crops. We went up to 500 acres of primarily cereal rye. We also started planting earlier maturing crops — a 3.2 bean and 105- or 107-day corn so we could get started with harvest in mid-September and have more opportunity to get cover crops going,” Brown said. “This year my 3.2 beans are yielding as well or better than my 3.8 beans so we are not seeing a yield lag with earlier maturity stuff. With today’s genetics those earlier maturities work, but they take a little more management. We automatically plan on using fungicides as part of managing those earlier crops.”
As Brown has expanded cover crop acres, he has also had to be more creative with how he gets them planted and the types of cover crops used.
“The last 2 to 3 years we tried to expand the cover crops we are using. We can spread with fertilizer, drill, Turbo Max with an air seeder, and then the airplane we use to sow into the standing crop. That has allowed us to experiment more with different things like oats and clovers, radishes, hairy vetch or rapeseed,” he said. “With the airplane you have to watch the weather and have an applicator lined up to do it when you need to do it. If it is dry in August and September, they will not germinate. This year we flew the first batch on Sept. 7 and we got 4 inches of rain that weekend. We flew the second batch on of Thursday of Farm Science Review and I think every seed germinated. We flew seed on in corn and soybeans, close to 450 acres this year. Of that, 350 was in soybeans. It was growing fast and we cut maybe six inches of that cover off when we were harvesting. I was very impressed. That was the tallest the cover crop had ever been when I harvested soybeans. Today the field looks like hay fields.“
Brown was most concerned about no-tilling corn into his cover crops as he added more acres.
“I was leery of planting corn into cover crops. I bought a corn planter with liquid setup and we are trying a little bit of corn into cover crops. Planting into cereal rye is the big one. There is so much carbon there it can tie up your nitrogen. You either have to terminate the cover crop when it is small or you need a nitrogen source pretty close to that seed. We are still experimenting and trying to learn,” he said. “There can be an allelopathic effect on the corn if you’re not careful. One year we didn’t have fertilizer on the planter and we got a good corn stand but then we had trouble getting the N on and I was worried the corn would struggle but it didn’t. The corn was five or 10 bushels off what it would normally make so it wasn’t a complete flop.
“This year we planted corn into oats and crimson clover. The oats captured the manure from the hog barn and we have been really impressed with the yields. We want to give it a shot of N as close to that seed with 2X2 and we are maybe looking at something in-furrow to get the corn up and going quickly and not get the N tied up with all the carbon. We may try to plant some green and may terminate some early too. Working with cover crops is not an exact science — it is an experiment. I don’t know that anyone has all the answers about cover cropping.”
The cover crops are showing promise with controlling weed pressure as well.
“Looking forward, I think cereal rye could replace my burndown and part of my residual program because it does such a good job of suppressing weeds when you get good growth to it. We were right at 50 pounds of cereal rye last year. With that I think I can cut my herbicides,” Brown said. “My goal in one field is to try and plant beans early and not terminate the rye until flowering stage and then roll the rye up to the second trifoliate of the soybeans. If I can get the beans in early and let the rye grow, then roll it and come in with dicamba and clean up what is there, that mat will act as a residual. That could be a place to cut costs and not hurt my weed control program. We are trying to incorporate new school with old school and intermingle them.”
In addition, Brown has been applying manure on fields he farms around a sow facility.
“The manure is custom applied. When we first started with the manure, they were plowing it all in 6 inches deep. They changed applicators and started running something new that is surface applied but then incorporated like an AerWay. We began to no-till into that,” he said. “When they fall apply manure they would drag up soybean stubble and we started running a Phillips harrow over it to knock it down. That is pretty much our total source of nutrients for those acres and we are trying to capture that as much as we can for each acre and cover crops help with that.
“We apply manure on maybe a third of our acres and half of that is applied every year. The fall-applied manure is easier to manage because you have more time to get fertilizer on the setbacks. The spring applications can be tougher to manage. We try to follow the manure applications with corn whenever we can. The hog manure has worked well with soybeans after the applications too. Typically we try to plant corn to maximize that nitrogen.”
The soils are showing improvements and the crop yields are responding to the changes.
“The biology in our soil has really changed. You can go out and dig and see all the earthworms and tunnels and I really believe there is a lot to soil biology and soil health. I have been really pleased with our yields and our plant health. It seems like our plants are healthier, standing better and I attribute a lot of that back to soil health. Our weather is changing and the organic matter and biology in the soil helps it hold water and nutrients better. When we get warm dry spells, the plant can better handle the weather because of the soil that is supporting it. Even with the wet conditions we’ve had this year, with our soil structure the water gets away faster and the plants don’t sit in the wet and handle wet weather better than I anticipated,” Brown said. “If I’m not healthy I’m not going to perform my best. It is the same with the soil. If we don’t have healthy soils, I think we are still leaving a lot on the table. Modern farming practices have only been around for 100 years. Nature took care of itself pretty well before we started plowing it. Yields have gone up but what could they do if we pay more attention to our soil health?”
Of course, the cost and effort of cover crops needs to be carefully considered and justified.
“How do you put a dollar amount on it? In the beginning, it is almost impossible to make it a profitable practice. But as your soil gets healthier and you can start reducing other costs and capturing more nutrients it can be a long-term investment. You are not going to see returns in the first year,” Brown said. “How do you put a price on the topsoil you lose? I am not farming for me. I am farming for my kids’ kids. I want there to be topsoil left for them to farm and healthy soils for them to farm. Being a first generation farm, we don’t own most of our acres but I treat every acre the same whether we own it or not. It is not one size fits all — we need think outside of the box a little bit because I want to be better at farming before I get bigger at farming.”