Author Archives: Timothy Buckley

Don’t Adopt – Adapt Instead

The days are long over for merely taking in what some trade show educator tells you and then applying it to your farm! You’ve learned how to take the guess work out of some of the things that used to be stumpers. Even taking your neighbor’s word for it comes with a grain of salt anymore, because the nature and condition of each farm acre is different.

Computers, GPS and soil testing have aided in our understanding of crop behavior, including what’s going on underground. In recent years, knowing the importance of microbiology in crop production has helped to improve soil health while also improving a farm’s balance sheet.

Cover crops provide residue (carbon) on the surface that keeps weeds down, releases stored nitrogen up to the next crop, and prevents soil heating, thus promoting a healthy environment for microbes, bacteria and fungi in the topsoil. The roots of old, terminated cover crops continue to give up food for biological life while adding to the organic matter of the soil.

While there are enough success stories out there to feel confident that cover crops are not a big risk. After all, many thousands have tried annual ryegrass and other cover crops, including cereal rye, and decided after a few years that they were going ALL IN, planting 100 percent of their acres in cover crops.

Regardless of what others did, however, starting out with a cover crop for the first time is a challenge. So, most transitioning to conservation tillage start with a small chunk of land before committing to plant the whole farm that way.

Once you see what changes occur on that test acreage, you’ll find out that managing annual ryegrass and other covers is not exceedingly difficult. You’ll also discover that the benefits, the savings and the profits warrant a bigger commitment.

Cover Crops – Part of a Hopeful Future

In the midst of a crisis that few alive have experienced, the future of agriculture is being debated while, on the ground, innovators are populating the debate with examples.

In the midst of a melt-down in commodity pricing, thanks to trade restrictions, historically low fuel prices and the pandemic, the future of the crop monoculture is teetering. Dan Towery, an Indiana crop advisor and soil conservation consultant said this yesterday: “The price paid to corn growers this year is between 25 and 50 cents below what it takes to break even.”

But in the next sentence, Dan said that those who have found their way to growing non-GMO, organic corn are getting a premium price for their product: about $12/bushel versus about $3!”

The era of “regenerative ag” has begun and because everybody says you should “start small”, it’s a model that brings hope: hope for better incomes, hope for a healthier soil, and hope for a loyal, local customer base that demands high quality and rewards it with patronage.

The next couple blog posts will outline some ways to start small, and will also point to those who started a decade ago and are showing how it can be applied equally to large scale farming.

But, at the bottom line, the common denominator is healthy soil, and doing agriculture in concert with nature. Once the tide is turned, away from conventional tillage and towards no-till and cover crops, the next steps will be done in stride with nature’s wishes, not ignoring them. For example, when the soil comes into balance, you need less equipment, fewer passes over the field, less inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and fungicides. With healthier soil, productivity will improve as costs are reduced. With less hours spent trying to break even, more hours can be spent starting new, profitable initiatives, driven more by local demand than by a broker hundreds of miles away.

The switch from conventional monocrop agriculture to something more diverse and more sustainable is not an overnight, “presto-chango” affair. But the nice thing is, the benefits can been seen in just one year, watching how cover crops begin to make a difference in how the soil feels and how the corn and beans respond.

New Look: Annual Ryegrass Impact on Fragipan

The short part of this long story is about three things:

  • the impact of compacted soil on crop productivity
  • how to break up compacted soil (fragipan, hardpan) with annual ryegrass
  • how annual ryegrass helps to increase yield of corn and soybeans

Twenty years ago, researchers working with farmers in Illinois found that annual ryegrass roots break up fragipan during winter months, when ryegrass roots permeate compaction and change its composition.

A short demonstration of the results of continuous use of annual ryegrass on compacted soil gradually eliminates compaction and allows cash crops much deeper soil, where added nutrients and moisture are found.

Watch this video and see how annual ryegrass can boost productivity and profits on your farm.

Will Cover Crops Help Post COVID-19?

The impacts of the coronavirus on our physical and financial futures is still washing ashore in our country. While some see sunshine coming from behind the clouds, we will perhaps be ushering in a new era in America, where natural disasters like this periodically disrupt our social and economic equilibrium.

Part of the silver lining, if indeed there is one, could be a massive reset in the way we grow and distribute agricultural products to customers. Some suggest that cover crops – including the grandads of them all: annual ryegrass and cereal rye – will continue to play a major role.

Whether the size of farms continues to grow as a whole, there’s a movement in the country to diversify the growing of our food. An interesting book I read some years ago, about the impact of the collapse of the USSR, suggests that having local food sources helps a lot when the “big” players shrink or disappear. Big government is on the run, and there are consequences of that strategy. Likewise, there are cracks appearing in the “big” industry model too, and the bailouts coming from the Congress and Administration are examples of what we may be headed for. The book: Reinventing Collapse, is written by Dimity Orlov, who holds citizenship in both the US and Russia.

But, back to agriculture. Some younger guys, both farmers and crop advisors, say that this is a good time to think about diversifying what has been a monocrop system. Cover crops are useful in that transition, just as they have been in transitioning from conventional tillage to no-till.

As mentioned in the last post, Cameron Mills (Indiana farmer) has been a pioneer in cover cropping his thousands of acreage. He’s now advocating diversifying crops, and he’s introduced to his operation a small livestock side business that he’s taken over while giving the corn and soybean side of the business increasingly to his adult sons.

Interestingly, much of the innovation is coming from farms themselves. The “big” system of universities has in some cases gotten too hide-bound and ponderous to lead the way to the next generation of farming. The innovation is coming from the farms themselves, and the younger guys and gals are leading the way.

The Impact and Opportunities of Crisis

The COVID-19 virus has kicked America’s economy in the gut. Even with a multi-TRILLION dollar infusion of cash in the next few months, it will be years before we’ll know whether it was enough, or whether it was invested in the proper sectors of society.

The impact on the Midwest is just beginning to be revealed. Will it further depress commodity prices and create a worker shortage? Will dairy and livestock processing grind to a halt because of a trucker shortage? Will deliveries of critical ag-related products slow to a crawl? Will the shrinking and shifting consumer spending pattern create more farm debt?

Dan Perkins, an organic farmer, small business owner and ag consultant from DeMotte, Indiana, is among those families who are already straining because of the pandemic. Perkins Good Earth Farm produces a variety of vegetables for about 150 families, selling direct through a local CSA (Community-supported agriculture.)

“This has had a huge impact on us already,” he said. “Local food sales are through the roof, and vegetable seed supply is really tight, because demand from small scale farmers and home gardeners have skyrocketed.”

“Normally, customers order online and come here to pick up their produce. But the new concerns for safety have pushed us to modify the way we package for pick up. Customers used to bring their own bags and shop farmer’s market style, where everything was displayed in bulk. Now we put everything in two-gallon bags and plastic containers. It’s increased our cost for labor, packaging, logistics and marketing. And at the same time my wife, Julie continues to do marketing and managing the CSA, while caring for our four children, home from school because of the closures.”

“We have four seasonal employees, too, and the social distancing protocols, on top of the added layers of product safety, have slowed all our activities down considerably,” he added. Because he has existing contracts with his customers, and is considerate of their potential hardships, he is not passing any of his new costs along to them.

The virus has also impacted some of his work as a Certified Crop Advisor. Naturally, Dan’s clients want him out in the fields on occasion to see up close what’s going on. And while he has tried to augment his on-farm visits with webinars and online video calls, he also said  “I think agriculture is among the ‘essential businesses’ we need to keep open and fully operating, so farm visits and field work are important.”

He also said that with industry non-essential travel having been restricted until early to mid summer, field day demonstrations have been cancelled or postponed. “This, too, will impact the information needed for good cover crop use in 2020,” he said.

With 20 years of exposure to the ups and downs of agriculture in the Midwest, Dan was upbeat about how times of crisis have always created opportunities for future health and growth in the industry. One of the things he discussed was the value – and the need – for more diversity on Midwest farms.

“I’m getting more and more local calls from farmers who want to add diversity to their farm,” he said. “Some in the last couple years tried growing hemp, and that was a bit of a disappointment. But others, and Cameron Mills (Walton, IN) is a good example, are integrating livestock into their row crops. He’s got a small herd and portable fencing, and he’s selling the cover crop-fed direct to local customers hungry for healthy, locally raised livestock.”

One of the potential challenges he discussed is how to move slowly in the direction of direct sales and away from strictly contract growing corn and soybeans. “It takes people with a desire, ability and a personality for selling direct to the public,” he said. “Many of the older farmers have never done that and don’t really want to start now. So, in some cases the next generation is taking on those responsibilities.”

Cover crops are an example of this new direction. While the science and economics of cover crops have proven out over the past 25 years, the number of acres in the Midwest with cover crops on them is probably not more than 15 percent. “By now, we should have more than 50 percent covered,” Dan said. “But it’s still a new thing for those who’ve been farming the same way for 50 years or more.”

Dan also said that the amount of information available about cover crops and crop diversification is immense, but that change comes principally via word-of-mouth – farmers talking with peers about their successes and failures with new ideas. “Technical support and financial incentives continue to be important, too,” he added, and unfortunately there’s not enough support and too much paperwork associated with it.”

Links to online resources regarding diversifying agriculture in the Midwest

To Bail or to Bale. In this Case, it’s Both!

What the heck can one say at a time like this except, “Sorry for your pain.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if the money spent on lobbying, marketing and advertising on behalf of agricultural issues had the desired effect? That the trade war hadn’t happened? That the gods and goddesses of weather would give us a break? That commodity prices would better reflect the effort that goes into producing crops for a hungry world?

Damn, and then this coronavirus comes along, incubated in an Asian marketplace where a way too close proximity existed between butchering live animals (infected with the virus) and selling the meat to customers. It’s still hard to wrap one’s head around why bats are such prolific carriers of viruses and how their blight infects poultry and livestock that gets eaten by us, The science is solid, but confusing to understand.

Regardless, the financial and emotional impacts of this latest disease on Midwest farm families is threatening an already unhealthy agriculture industry. Prices have been low to begin with, and now with markets shrinking and a shortage of farm labor, things have just become worse.

If there’s any silver lining here, it will be evident in two places: in our communities and in the form of relief offered by governments.

  • Like in the old days, when a neighbor called on us for support, we respond by sharing whatever we have. Sometimes it’s only a listening ear, other times physical and financial support. In those times, the spirit of community seems to lift everyone up and bring us together, those receiving and those giving. We’re in it together, thick or thin, red or blue, Christian or non-believer.
  • Many in the Midwest generally support a type of governance that exerts little in the way of oversight – whether from state or federal agents. And when things go awry, such as with natural disasters like this pandemic, we want to insure that the government (and its hundreds of millions of taxpayers) are there to support the rescue and rehabilitation of communities worst hit by disaster.

Oddly enough, the verb “to bail” refers to evacuating something, like water out of a boat or a bank account out of insolvency. In farming, the verb “to bale” means to gather something up, to consolidate it, as in hay. Yet, the word “baling” is equally apt for either verb. In the case of the Midwestern farm, it may be a unique opportunity to unite the verb forms. Our businesses need baling out and we also need the baling – or coming together – that community action can bring.

Spring Forward with Annual Ryegrass

Spring is, for cover croppers, the time to kill your cover crop before planting cash crops – corn or soybeans. For others, spring is also the time to plant annual ryegrass as a cover crop!

Interseeding is the name for putting out annual ryegrass seed in the spring, when your corn is established but before it reaches knee-high. There are a couple of reasons to consider doing it this way:

  • You avoid having to squeeze in a fall planting of annual ryegrass, when harvest and weather and field conditions can play havoc
  • The annual ryegrass will be well established in the fall when you take off the corn. It will have been sitting nearly dormant all summer – in the shade of the corn foliage – but its root structure will have been expanding, inching its way into the earth. This makes the grass more resilient to colder fall temperatures, and more likely to winter over in the field.
  • You can plant the cover crop with the same equipment used for side dressing the corn, thus creating efficiencies in your operation.

For those interested in interseeding principles and practices, check out this flyer. Below, a cover crop mix of annual ryegrass and clover established in the spring as corn grows to each side.

Annual Ryegrass – Best Friend of Deep Cover Crops

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, 90 percent of the world’s seed for annual ryegrass is grown. Because the water table is so high, the roots need not go far for moisture. In the Midwest, it’s a different story, and that was the first major “AHA” of its widespread adoption as a cover crop.

Over the winter, annual ryegrass roots can reach to depths of five feet, although the first year will probably not produce that depth. But over a span of five years, the channels built from successive years of annual ryegrass use will provide new access for deeper growth the next year.

For this and other reasons, Indiana farmer Cameron Mills says annual ryegrass is the best cover crop out there. “Annual ryegrass still gets a fair amount of bad-mouthing,” he said at a recent conference in Oregon, where many of the ryegrass seed growers were in the audience. “The important thing is, you have to keep getting good information out there about annual ryegrass to balance the negative. One thing you hear is that it is hard to manage. Well, that’s not true either, but you do have to manage it carefully.”

Annual ryegrass, he continued, solves a lot of problems, such as erosion, depleted organic matter, compaction, annual weeds and soybean nematodes. But to get it to work for you, you must be flexible about when you apply the seed and when you terminate it.

And as for terminating it, you have to be very conscientious that the herbicide used to terminate it doesn’t remain in the soil very long – commonly referred to as herbicide carryover; otherwise, it could inadvertently retard the growth of the next round of cover cropping. See below, two fields planted on the same day, only a mile apart from one another. One field shows healthy growth, and the herbicides were generic Bicep II and Impact. The other field, where Halex GT was used, is almost barren of cover crop. Mills said that there’s nothing wrong with Halex GT…it’s a great herbicide, but you must pay attention that the herbicide used doesn’t carry over into next year’s cover crop season.

Non GMO Seed and Cover Crop Management

Cameron Mills, a grower from Walton, Indiana, spoke a couple months ago at the annual Oregon Seed League conference. Among his surprising messages:

  • Moving away from GMO seed is a sound economic move
  • Glyphosate is under threat from consumers and we’ll have to adapt – but it certainly won’t put an end to use of cover crops
  • Big Ag is moving in the direction that consumers demand – “regenerative” ag
  • Introducing beef into the Midwest mix is very profitable

These days, Mills said, consumers are driving change in ag. “They want to know where products are produced, how healthy they are, and how safe,” he said. And consumers around the world are speaking ever louder that they’ve had enough of GMO.

Mills said that after 23 years of pushing GMO, the tide is moving against it. So instead of fighting the tide, Mills has grabbed onto Non-GMO full time, in a hurry. And, he made a convincing argument that Non GMO is a darn sight less costly than going with the “Magical Seeds.” See below.

He said that with the per/acre savings, there’s a better Return on Investment with Non-GMO. So what difference does it make if the GMO seed outproduces the Non-GMO seed by a few bushels/acre? By the way, he said “magical seed” doesn’t always perform to it’s promise anyway. His farm of almost 4000 acres – corn, soybeans, triticale, wheat and beef cattle – is 100 percent Non-GMO and he’s been in continuous cover crop since 2006.

In terms of cover crop choices, Mills says he likes annual ryegrass a lot, and it has helped him reduce damage on his fields in spring when he wants to get out and start planting, even when it’s still a bit wet.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about other topics he discussed, including how to apply cover crops, how to manage and how to learn to adapt quickly with Plan B, C, and D. Farming on the fly? Not exactly, but flexibility is important…and experience helps grow confidence in being flexible.

Cover Crop Management – Spring 2020

It’s time to think about getting in gear for cover crop season in the Midwest.

If you’re starting out with cover crops for the first time, here’s a handy, comprehensive Management Guide we put together a couple years ago.

If you’re familiar with cover crops, then you’ll know that spring is the time to get rid of the remaining cover crop in preparation for corn or soybean planting.

  • If the cover crop is still alive, glyphosate is the best way to kill it. Follow herbicide instructions to the tee, as you don’t want to come back and kick its butt a second time…because it gets harder.
  • Check out the specifics in our Management Guide.

For added tips, Here’s an article from Successful Farmer, which covers the benefits as well as some advice about types of covers to consider in the future.