March 8, 2022
“I love ditching — I can see what is going on in the soil,” says Jeff Duling, who co-owns a drainage and excavation business, which complements the 1,300 acres he farms in Putnam County, Ohio.
He raises no-till corn, soybeans, wheat and cereal rye for seed, as well as managing a 2,200-head, contract wean-to-finish hog enterprise and finishing feeder cattle.
“Jeff is very serious about conserving soil and using crop inputs judiciously,” says Glen Arnold, Ohio State University Extension field specialist, who nominated Duling as a 2022 Ohio Master Farmer. “He uses tile-control structures to conserve water during the summer months and to contain water nutrients during the winter months. He has always led by example with his farming practices and has been asked many questions by farmers wanting to get started with no-till.”
Jeff and his three brothers took over the farm from his father, Bob, who purchased the original farm in 1964. Bob still farms with Jeff and is known in the area as a no-till pioneer with more than 40 years of experience. “Dad saw those earthworms were doing the tillage for him,” Jeff says.
The impact of cover crops came in Jeff’s ‘ah-ha’ moment, as he describes it. “We took on another farm with poor soils and drainage,” he says. “Dad and I were out there probing for the outlets in the grass waterways, and we started digging — the soil there was just beautiful, as black as black can be. I’m thinking, just 3 feet away in the field we’re farming clay bricks. It just clicked in my head; that’s because it’s had something growing on it forever. That’s what Mother Nature wants us to do.”
That was about 20 years ago, and Jeff has embraced cover crops with the help of GPS guidance.
“I’m 100% sold on getting the ground covered, because when I see water come off my fields, it better be clear,” he says.
When the Ohio State University Extension office in Putnam County and Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District started conducting plot work using swine-finishing manure to topdress wheat in 2005, Jeff volunteered his fields and his equipment to help. When those plots were extended to sidedressing cornfields in 2008, Jeff contributed his manure tanker, cornfields and swine-finishing manure for plots.
“His fields were the first no-till fields in which corn was subsurface-applied using a Dietrich sweeps toolbar behind a manure tanker,” Arnold says. “He also contributed manure for research plots at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center Northwest Station and the Soil Health Agricultural Research Plot site in Putnam County.”
Being involved with the soil and water conservation district, Jeff says he likes to try all kinds of conservation practices. “If I can’t do them, how can I promote them?” he says. He has implemented filter strips, grassed waterways, blind inlets and water-control structures. This spring, he has plans for some marginal acres with a creek running through it. “It’s some of our best ground, but those low areas flood from time to time, and I’m losing ground or a crop, sometimes both,” he says.
After looking at 20 years of yield maps, the low ground yielded between 160-170 bushels per acre of corn, in contrast to 240 bushels from high ground.
“It requires the same inputs, so through the H2Ohio program, I’m putting in a riparian tree buffer,” Jeff says. “I’m going to plant 4.3 acres of trees this spring.”
Jeff firmly supports the H2Ohio program, which is the state’s water-quality plan to reduce harmful algal blooms, improve wastewater infrastructure and prevent lead contamination.
He has four water-control structures on his farm. “It’s these large rain events that are fueling algal blooms,” he says. “If we can get tile on the ground, create a sponge, get ready for these big rains, we won’t have all this surface water running off.”
Nutrient management is a high priority, as he soil-samples everything he farms in 2.5-acre grids every two to three years. Manure samples are tested for nutrient levels to offset fertilizer applications.
“With hog manure, I want to be able to use the right amount and put my phosphate where it's supposed to be,” he adds.
There’s still more to learn, though, he says. This year, he dug deeper — 3 feet — for soil samples.
“We’ve been putting fertilizer on for 50 years, where did it go?” he says. “It’s in the ground. We just can’t get to it. But, with cover crops, those roots are growing deeper and bringing that back up.”
This year, he harvested a 2-foot square of cover crops and had them lab-tested. “It just blew me away how much fertility is out there that cover crops pulled up.”
Right after high school, Jeff became a mason, while still helping on the farm. He went on to be a truck driver and spent more than 20 years working at a local fertilizer and chemical business, where he became a certified crop adviser — a status he maintains. For the past 10 years, he’s proud to say he’s a full-time farmer.
Jeff and his wife of 30 years, Brenda, own and operate Duling Family Farms after buying out Jeff’s three brothers a couple of years ago, and they are looking forward to their son, Nathan, 26, joining the farm full time in the future.
“Nathan works off the farm yet as an electrical engineer, but he’s buying some ground and working with me — we farm together,” says Jeff, who also has two daughters, Kara, a surgical nurse, and Kendra, a first grade teacher. Brenda had been a longtime child care provider, but a few years back, she took a position as a teacher’s aide. “She plays a major role in this operation keeping me on track,” Jeff says.
The year 2021 was a busy year for the family, as two of the Duling siblings said “I do.” Nathan married Kialee Koch in December, while Kara married Anthony Dunn in October.
As the farm grew, Jeff started feeding steers and custom farming, offering crop planting, harvesting and trucking. He also added a solar panel system next to his hog buildings and started a drainage and excavation business with a neighboring farmer, Mark Hempfling, whom he calls his business partner.
“I own a drainage plow, and they have a wheel machine, so it just was a natural fit that we work together,” says Jeff, who adds they also run trucks together, share maintenance chores and marketing ideas.
“I’m pretty proud of my grain setup, and they were looking to dry their corn, so that became something we offered, while opening up a revenue stream.”
Hempfling farms with his family on other side of Glandorf. Jeff says Mark helps balance their business relationship with patience. “We talk a lot about the markets every day, and we look to be profitable,” Jeff says. “We don’t get greedy, and if we’re making money, that’s when we start selling.”
Looking ahead, Jeff says his barns are getting older, and he might look into feeder pigs. Regardless of what the future holds, he says he doesn’t dwell on the past. “I’ve done some things right and I’ve made some mistakes, but I always look at the future and try to make it better.”
Jeff Duling at a glance
Farm: Duling Family Farms LLC raises 1,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat. It also has a 2,200-head, contract wean-to-finish hog enterprise; 600 acres of custom farming; and a drainage, excavating and trucking business.
Ag and community leadership: 25 years as an usher at Glandorf St. John’s Catholic Church; Putnam County Soil and Water supervisor — chairman and secretary positions during the past 13 years; Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts board of directors for Area 1; Ohio Nature Conservancy Farmer Advocates for Conservation Program; Farm Bureau member; Ohio Corn and Wheat Grower Association and Ohio Soybean Association member; certified crop adviser
Awards: 2015 Environmental Stewardship Award awarded by Ohio Pork Council; 2021 No-till Council Outstanding No-Till Farmer Award
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