April 28, 2023
Photo by Joseph L. Murphy
Every acre of the 1,680 acres Les Seiler farms with his brother, Jerry, in Fayette, Ohio, has something growing on it year-round. That’s not anything new, though. They have been doing it for more than a decade.
They’ve also been 100% continuous no-till since 1986. It’s all part of their conservation strategy and goal to mimic Mother Nature, allowing for nutrient building, better water absorption and herbicide reductions, while reducing soil erosion. All of which has led to greater crop diversity.
They’re growing soybeans, corn, wheat, barley for malt and alfalfa, which is harvested for a nearby alfalfa mill.
The American Soybean Association recently presented Les and Jerry with the 2023 National Conservation Legacy Award for the Northeast Region during the annual ASA awards celebration event at the Commodity Classic farm show in Orlando, Fla.
Les was nominated by Hans Kok out of Indianapolis, who Les has worked with extensively to address issues within the Western Lake Erie Basin. It’s also worth noting the Seilers were named Ohio Master Farmers, awarded by Ohio Farmer magazine in 2020.
Turned onto no-till
When others were starting to be turned off by no-till because of slugs and residue that didn’t break down, the Seilers were starting to see organisms build up and eat up the residue.
In 2009, they began to add wheat back into the crop rotation and experiment with cover crops that included a blend of winter peas and radishes. “The biodiversity in our soils exploded,” Les says.
After corn and soybeans, they plant cereal rye and barley and a multispecies mix after wheat.
The cover crop following corn is flown over after Labor Day. “We're bumping our rates to like 70 pounds to the acre with the hopes we can use our roller crimper, which we partnered to buy with another grower,” Les says. “We're hoping with a thicker stand and using the crimper, we can start weaning herbicides off. By saving money on herbicides, it’s another angle to pay for cover crops.”
A highboy seeder is used to plant the cover crop in soybeans, also after Labor Day and before leaf drop.
In the bigger picture, “the nutrients we can grow and return to the soil is probably the most exciting,” Les says.
The Seilers have been zone soil-testing all acres, every other year with the same lab for 18 years.
Eight years ago, they stopped applying phosphorus with the corn planter and switched to calcium. “Our yields have gotten better throughout that period,” Les says. “Calcium and phosphorus can’t go together, or they’ll solidify, so we had to drop one of them.”
They also started doing biomass studies, which can assign a value to the nutrients they grow.
“After a multispecies cover crop in wheat, biomass was gathered at the end of October — it was like a $70-per-acre return,” Les says. “One of my buddies did the same at two locations and got a return of $160 and $140 an acre. That's how you pay for cover crops, even though not all these nutrients will be plant-available.”
His friend planted Austrian winter peas in his mix, and Les thinks that may have been the difference in pushing him to the higher revenue level.
“Plus, when they broke down the samples at the lab, there were so many micronutrients,” Les says. “To purchase separately, it would have cost us a fortune.”
They have eliminated commercial fertilizer use without mining the soils of nutrients. They have also cut back or eliminated the need for insecticides, herbicides and fungicides.
Curbing soil erosion
In 1986, they were tired of watching gullies wash away valuable soil on property in northwest Fulton County near the Ohio-Michigan state line.
Waterways are used where needed in the Seiler operation. The practice involves 15- to 30-foot-wide buffer strips on all fields and along streams.
About three-quarters of the land they are farming is rented. “We are blessed to have landowners that appreciate what we are doing with their land,” Jerry says. “We tile where it needs tile and put waterways in when necessary. … We farm it like it’s ours. We hate to see soil being blown or washed away.”
Seiler Farms is part of the Western Lake Erie Basin, where they are keenly aware of how nutrient losses passed into the Maumee River can contribute to the algal bloom issues on Lake Erie.
Near that state line is a winding ditch and 660 feet, with 11 feet of fall, which runs through property the brothers own. “The Nature Conservancy headed up a group of ag businesses and conservation agencies that helped with and encouraged our Fulton County Engineer’s Ditch Maintenance office to help us transform a winding ditch,” Les explains.
Controlling the flow
The ditch was prone to overflow and washing out. “The ditch is now a channel that controls the flow and stops the pressure of the water from washing out soils heading east toward Lake Erie,” Les says. “We are particularly proud of that farm because it contains the two-stage ditch, filter strips, waterways, cover crops and a pollinator habitat all on one property.”
Benches on each side of the two-stage ditch are about 35 feet wide and are about 2 feet above the normal channel.
As an example, Les says if the water were running 10 mph during high flow times, it could slow it to 3 to 5 mph. “It takes the destructiveness out of it, and is a great fit for that farm,” he adds.
Dirt removed to build the ditch was moved to needed locations on the farm.
The Seilers are working with the University of Akron to plant different prairie mixes on the benches that may be better nutrient scavengers. “We want to tie them up instead of letting them wash into Lake Erie,” Les says. “We’re eight years into it, and we’re pretty happy with it.”
A place for pollinators
Pollinator habitats and beehives are also included in the operation. “These beneficial insects can add a tremendous amount of value to your crops,” Les says. “If you’ve got weevil coming into your alfalfa field, it’s a place where ladybugs and things like that can come to life and help keep the weevils in check.”
A few years ago, the Seilers purchased a farm with high soybean cyst nematode numbers. “Through cover crops, we basically took those numbers down to where we don’t need to worry about planting a resistant bean anymore,” Les says. “We can mitigate a lot of the problems we've had over the years by using practices Mother Nature intended.”
With regenerative agriculture, incorporating animals is the biggest missing link on Seiler Farms, Les says. “And I honestly don't know how to incorporate it the way we're set up,” he adds. “The fencerows have been gone for many years, but it’s not something we wouldn’t entertain.”
Les doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but he’s willing to share what he knows with others at conferences and through videos and webinars.
The farm hosts field days in conjunction with area soil and water conservation districts, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and The Nature Conservancy. They also have an Ohio State University water quality monitoring site on the farm.
Regarding the award, he says, “It’s a great honor, and I’m grateful for people who thought we were worthy of it.”
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