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Corn+Soybean Digest

2016 Conservation Legacy Awards: Conservation is a family tradition

2016 Conservation Legacy Awards: Conservation is a family tradition
Kansas farming brothers build on grandfather and father’s strong conservation base.

Three generations of Winsors have been working since the 1940s to sustain soil and water resources on the family farm in northeastern Kansas. They’ve taken on the challenges of safely farming sandy flat lands bordering the Kansas River to protecting highly erodible soils as flat lands extend into the hills between Lawrence and Topeka.

Andy Winsor says the generations before him deserve much of the credit for Winsor Farms being named the Midwest winner of the Conservation Legacy Award for 2016. “Grandpa and Dad started conservation efforts, building terraces and waterways and farming on the contour,” Winsor says. “Having those practices in place allows my brother and I to implement newer conservation techniques, such as water management and cover crops.”

Andy and his wife LaVell farm 4,400 acres with Andy’s parents, Russell and Pat, and his brother Ben and his wife Emily near Grantville. That includes 3,800 acres in a corn-soybean rotation with another 200 acres of hard red winter wheat added to the rotation occasionally. They typically double-crop soybeans after harvesting wheat. They also harvest both cool and warm season grasses as hay on 400 acres of their steepest land, wintering 300 beef cows and a 100-head core cowherd. Ben specializes in livestock and Andy and Russell handle cropland operations.

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

Strip-till is best

Winsor Farms chooses tillage systems according to the needs of each field each year. “Strip-till is one practice I feel really helps our bottom line as well as our soil health and water quality,” Andy says. “We use it on about half our crop acres, and accomplish a number of goals with it. Residue on top of the ground keeps our soil in place and we’re efficient with our fertilizer by placing it in a narrow band under the seed where the plant roots can access it.”

Besides strip-till, the Winsors use a mix of no-till, ridge-till, and vertical tillage. “Every one of these systems will leave enough residues to protect the soil from erosion,” Andy says.

“We know our long-term success will depend on the health of our soil,” Andy says. “That’s one reason we’re experimenting with cover crops—still looking for the right mixtures for our climate and soils. Our preference is for a mixture that includes tillage radishes that lessen compaction problems. We also need cover crops that will winter kill because it’s not ideal for us to have to till or burn the crop residue in the spring. Cover crops are a work in progress on our farm.”


Water and wildlife

Water management focus

Water management has been a focus on Winsor Farms for the past several years. “In 2005, we started converting our flood irrigated fields to center pivot irrigation. All of our irrigation pivots have drops to get the water closer to the crop canopy to decrease evaporation,” Andy says. “We also get energy savings with a smartphone app that allows us to remotely turn the pivots on and off and view the progress of each pivot.”

“This year, we installed a subsurface drip irrigation system on a farm that had no irrigation. It is projected to save 20-30% of the water applied compared to a pivot. If this subsurface irrigation works like we hope it does, we’ll add this type of irrigation to other fields.”

Both irrigation types result in more efficient application of fertilizers and chemicals. Andy, a certified chemigation applicator, saves sprayer and fertilizer application trips across irrigated fields by adding fertilizers and chemicals to irrigation waters.

 “When we installed the drip tape we used RTK guidance on our tractor. The tape is plowed in 16 inches deep on 60-inch centers,” he explains. “When we plant, we use the same RTK guidance system. With our crop in 30-inch rows, offset by 15 inches from the tape, every crop row is within 15 inches of that underground water and fertilizer source. That puts the fertilizer and water in the root zone right where the plant needs it.”

Wildlife flourishes

“We’re close to lots of timber, several creeks, a large man-made lake and the Kansas River, so wildlife generally flourishes in our area,” Andy says. Timber and hay fields—including one native prairie grass field that Andy’s grandfather, father and now Andy and his brother have vowed to never plow for crops—give birds, deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife nesting, cover and food.

The Winsors also have 50 acres of grassed waterways that offer habitat to wildlife, and a 10-acre natural wetland that attracts ducks, geese and the wide variety of wildlife that all natural wetlands support.

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

In the spirit of community living near Lawrence and Topeka, the Winsors allow walk-in fishing on the Kansas River that borders two of their farms on the south. It’s managed by the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Department. Their tributary streams to the Kansas River are more fish-friendly because of a combination of water-quality practices: Use of drinking fountains and waterers to keep cattle from having to drink water directly from ponds and creeks; fenced off creeks; grass buffers planted along streams; and rotationally grazed pastures.


Gains and challenges

Gains from reduced inputs

“We’ve really tried hard to reduce inputs in the past few years,” Andy says. “For us, that starts with the good soil testing program. We started grid sampling 20 years ago. That guides us for variable rate fertilizer application.”

The Winsors do some tissue testing to guide nitrogen use. They split-apply nitrogen as much as possible through their strip-till system, put some nitrogen on with the planter, and sidedress corn at V-8. They also use the GreenSeeker system that senses how green the corn is, to variable-rate nitrogen at sidedress. “We expect to do an even more precise job of fertilizing next year as we begin using zone management to better match our soils,” Andy says. Andy purchased a drone that he plans to use to do a better job of scouting fields next year. They plan to begin using variable-rate seeding next year, too, dropping fewer seeds on lighter soils and using heavier seeding rates on more fertile soils. He adds that the use of GMO seeds for nearly two decades has proven to reduce pesticide use.

Download the 2016 Conservation Legacy Award stories in .PDF format
This file type includes high resolution graphics and charts when applicable.

The Winsors use GPS to prevent overlap of inputs; auto steer keeps the passes lined up across the field and auto shutoffs on the planter and sprayer prevent overlap of inputs.

Time is a challenge

There are always things that can be improved on, Andy admits, and work that needs to be ongoing to maintain the practices you have. “This all takes time—it's not something that happens very quickly,” he says. “The biggest challenge we face in doing more conservation work is finding the time to do it.”

There’s some risk in using conservation practices and technologies, just like everything else in farming, Andy says. “I'd go slow with new practices, on a small field or on a few acres at first. That's what we've done with cover crops and drip irrigation. We also started small with strip-till, using a low-cost machine at first. After we liked what we saw, we were able to upgrade to a better machine that became a central part of our planting system.”

Andy says LaVell is a financial analysis professional and does the financial analysis on their farms. “She's finding a lot of the conservation work we've done, especially the technologies we're using to reduce inputs, are helping our bottom line. We’re cutting inputs but at the same time our yields are increasing.”

It takes a good understanding of what's available and what could work on your farm to get a comprehensive set of conservation practices established on your farm, Andy and LaVell say. They advise farmers who want to do more conservation work to become more knowledgeable about well-known practices and be open to learning about new practices that may not be common in your area.

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