When weeds sprout in crop fields, farmers typically want to know the best way to get rid of them.
Muskingum County, Ohio, farmer Doug McConnell doesn’t like weed competition any more than the next farmer, but he also wants to figure out why a particular weed takes root.
“Before we go kill it, we want to know what we can learn from it,” he explains. Weed species can provide insight into soil conditions, so taking note of what’s growing where helps him manage the land he farms.
McConnell’s curiosity about weeds and growing conditions is an example of the thoughtful approach he takes toward farming. He and his wife, Beth, along with their daughters, 9-year old Landyn and 7-year-old Kendyl, are being honored with a 2019 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award. The family farms 482 acres, producing corn and soybeans as well as various forages and cover crops. They also custom-raise Jersey heifers for a nearby dairy, have a beef cow-calf herd, and feed out beef cattle and dairy steers.
Doug got his start in farming growing up on his family’s farm and then going to work for another area farmer. He and Beth began farming themselves in 2001, with 100 acres of rented ground, using a two-row combine and a four-row corn planter. In 2007, they got the chance to rent an additional 400 acres, and Doug quit his job to begin farming full time in 2011. “The dream was always to farm for ourselves,” Doug says.
Regenerative ag practices, research
Along the way, Van Slack, an ag resource specialist with the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District, has encouraged the McConnells to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Slack has guided and sometimes pushed them to try new ideas, Doug says. They have also been influenced by the example of Fairfield County farmer Dave Brandt, who promotes production practices that enhance soil health.
The McConnells are using no-till and cover crops, which helps minimize erosion on the sloped fields they farm. Those production practices are also helping rebuild the soil’s water infiltration capacity, which was an advantage this past spring during heavy rains. “You might not notice the difference until you have the weather conditions that bring these things out,” Doug points out.
Besides helping water soak into the soil rather than running off, cover crops are helping with nutrient management, Doug says. For instance, a sample clipped from a cereal rye cover crop showed it held about 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre. After the rye was terminated with herbicide, the rye residue released nitrogen through the growing season for use by the following crop.
Working with Ohio State University Extension and the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District on nutrient management test plots has given the McConnells valuable insights on managing fertilizer rates. The research, which was used in updating the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations, helped show the importance of economic thresholds when figuring fertilizer rates, Doug says. Using pre-sidedress tests and considering previous crops and yields also helps him determine nitrogen rates.
Taking advantage of cover crops that fix nitrogen and capture nutrients makes it possible to reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers, Doug adds. “We can grow fertilizer through the crops.” A diverse mix of crops also helps nurture a variety of soil organisms that live in the soil and help with nutrient cycling, he adds. “We’re starting to discover more of what’s there.”
‘Fencerow mentality’ fosters soil species diversity
Doug points out the diversity of plant species in field fencerows, which contributes to diversity in the biology of the soil. “We need to take the fencerow mentality and move it into our crop fields,” he says. To do that, he has been interseeding cover crops into his corn using seed mixes that include a variety of species such as annual rye, balansa clover, flax, buckwheat and tillage radishes. He tries to interseed the cover crop when the corn is about knee-high, so it has time to become established before the corn canopies. Then, the cover crops go dormant until after corn harvest, he explains. He uses a drill to plant the cover crop in two rows spaced between the 30-inch corn rows.
Doug is also experimenting with corn planted in 60-inch rows, with interseeded cover crops. The idea is to produce grain as well as forage while nurturing the soil. After corn harvest, he’ll turn his cattle into the field to mob-graze on the cover crop and corn residue. He’s optimistic he won’t see a yield loss compared to 30-inch rows, and he will have the added benefit of forage production to feed his cattle.
In addition to the cover crops interseeded in his corn, Doug is following his soybeans with a cereal rye cover crop. Then, in the spring, he plants corn into the standing rye cover. He’s planted into rye as tall as 6 feet and achieved good corn stands. The tall cover did tend to wrap up on his marker arm, but he was able to leave the maker arms up and find his way with WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) GPS and a lightbar guidance system.
The McConnells’ crop mix also includes some sorghum-sudangrass for hay, peas planted with oats for grazing, and triticale for sale as seed through Walnut Creek Seeds. Cattle are an important part of their farming system as well, helping diversify income and maximizing productive use of their land.
Since they are renting all the land they farm, the McConnells are particularly aware of the land rental expense as a cost of production, Doug points out.
Conservation for long term
However, that doesn’t mean he’s willing to skimp on conservation for a short-term gain. “It’s tough when it’s somebody else’s,” he admits, “but that’s all we’ve got.” Conservation is necessary to preserve the productivity of the land and improve the health of waterways, he points out. “If you keep kicking it down the road, you’re just delaying getting it started.”
Some production practices farmers have used over the years unintentionally degraded farmland, Doug notes. “It wasn’t degraded on purpose — we used the technology we had available at the time.” Now, however, farmers have access to better information about farming with nature, he explains.
“We have faith that God guides us where he wants us. He created a system that doesn’t require us messing it up.”
The McConnell family
The family. Doug and Beth McConnell are the parents of two daughters: Landyn, 9, and Kendyl, 7.
The farm. The McConnells farm 482 acres in Muskingum County, Ohio, raising corn and soybeans as well as assorted cover crops, sorghum-sudangrass for hay, peas with oats for grazing, and triticale for seed. They also custom-raise Jersey heifers for a nearby dairy, have a beef cow-calf herd, and feed out beef cattle and dairy steers.
Nomination. Nominated by Lisa Crock, Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District administrator
Research and outreach efforts. The McConnell farm was a stop on the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District 2016 ATV Tour and has been used as a site for soil health training. Nutrient management information gathered from their farm has been shared with other area producers through meetings sponsored by the Muskingum Soil and Water Conservation District and Ohio State University Extension, Muskingum County. The farm is conducting research with the Mandaamin Institute to evaluate the nutrient efficiency of high-methionine corn.
Community activities. The McConnells are members of the Muskingum County Farm Bureau, and Doug served for six years on the county board. He has also worked on Farm Bureau policy development for four years. The McConnells are active members of the Zanesville Neighborhood Church. Doug and Beth also volunteer at their local school.
Keck writes from Raymond, Ohio.