Dan DeSutter in the 90's. Son Matthew and I picked him up to go see a no-till planter demonstration in Illinois that Paul Reed and cousin David Moeller had developed from Howard Martin and Eugene Keeton's parts. Many of us have adapted that planter system and still use it today.
"The Attica, Ind., grain farmer views any disturbance of the soil as an inherently destructive process. After 20 years of no-tilling corn and soybeans, he and other farmers are well on their way to what they call "never-till" -- a zero-tillage system that revs up their soil biology for optimum soil nutrient recycling to increase grain crop yields.
DeSutter started no-tilling to lower production costs and to protect his soil. He didn't realize he was also changing the soil biology and building soil organic matter by two percentage points. He is now firmly focused on learning how his farming system affects the unseen life below the soil surface.
POWER UP MICROBES
"The second you stop tilling, the sooner your soil [microbiology] starts trying to build organic matter," explains Barry Fisher, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) state soil health specialist for Indiana. Biological activity resides in the topsoil. It serves as the engine for the carbon and nitrogen recycling that provides food for soil microbes and makes nutrients available for growing crops.
"Once you break up the old plant root channels and earthworm burrows with tillage, you have to start over," he adds. "I've watched many farmers trying to make no-till work with tillage, and this [understanding] is what they're missing."
Fisher said if you're tilling the top 2 inches of your soil, you're injecting oxygen and burning off the organic matter from soil microbe activity. "Organic matter is the very thing you need to make your soil transition to better soil health."
It's going through the transition stage that prevents many from attaining true no-till farming, much less never-till. He adds that just stopping tillage doesn't guarantee improvements in soil health. Easing the transition depends on incorporating cultural practices, such as improving drainage, adding diversity into a typical corn/soybean rotation by including cover crops and managing a fertilizer program that complements soil microbe activity.
Experienced no-tillers recommend identifying and eliminating field problems before changing to a no-till cropping system. Roger Wenning, Greensburg, Ind., was faced with ground that was cold and hard because of the clay composition of the soil. He'd been no-tilling soybeans but quit the practice in corn because of drainage issues. Tile turned the situation around.
IMPROVE SOIL STRUCTURE
With drainage problems solved, it was time to conquer compaction. Wenning tried rippers but found long-term results less than satisfying. "That's where the cover crops come in," he said. "Wheat helped, but it wasn't the answer, so I got hold of some [annual] ryegrass and started experimenting with that."
Visible soil structure improvements have led him to keep a cover crop on every acre during the last nine years. While annual ryegrass and crimson clover are his favorites, Wenning has tried oilseed radishes. Still, it's root-heavy ryegrass that he counts on to build soil organic matter quickly.
Some of Wenning's fields had 1% to 1.5% soil organic matter nine years ago. A continuous no-till and cover crop treatment has raised soil organic matter to 2.3%.
His cover crop investment is $34 per acre for seed and aerial application."
I haven't seen Roger or Dan in awhile but it is good to see them doing well.