For following practices contributing to healthier soils, clean water and sustainable crop production, as well as being committed to innovation and participating in on-farm research, the National Corn Growers Association has awarded Schlichting Farms Inc., Rice, Minn., with its 2019 Good Steward Recognition.
Rick and Marlene Schlichting and their daughter, Jocelyn Schlichting Hicks, received the award March 1 at Commodity Classic in Orlando, Fla. NCGA’s Stewardship Action Team sponsors the award to raise awareness among U.S. farmers of the importance of conservation agriculture.
“NCGA defines sustainability as the pursuit of constant improvement and the Schlichting family personifies this description,” said Lynn Chrisp, NCGA president of Hastings, Neb., in a news release. “Their progressive farming practices and contributions to healthier soils, cleaner water and sustainable crop production are nothing short of extraordinary.”
The Schlichtings, along with relatives Diane Wojtanowicz (Rick’s aunt) and Anna Breiger (Diane’s daughter) who operate Prairie Farm Co., raise more than 6,600 acres of potatoes, edible beans, corn, alfalfa and winter rye, in addition to raising hogs and maintaining 600 acres of native forest and prairie lands. For more than four decades, they have planted cover crops, practiced crop rotation and used low-pressure irrigation.
Rick Schlichting said building healthier, more productive soil is directly linked to saving soil and cleaner water, especially for a farm like theirs, situated on sandy soil and near the Mississippi River. Here are several management practices that the Schlichting team follows:
Right nutrients, right time, right rate. To minimize leaching and input amounts, the Schlichtings follow best management practices recommended by the University of Minnesota and their agronomist, Rick Gilbertson. Fertilizer applications vary each year. However, on average, they may make up to eight applications on potatoes, six on corn and three on kidney beans. They side-dress at the beginning of the growing season and later fertigate when plants are taller.
Since 2012, the farm has been working with Minnesota Department of Agriculture research scientists as a demonstration site that shows the impact of BMPs within a Minnesota Department of Health municipal Drinking Water Supply Management Area. The fields, on the northwest edge of Rice, continue to show low nitrate/nitrogen levels as measured by a dozen lysimeters set six feet deep.
“The lysimeter results on our fields show this split application method has been successful in reducing our leaching,” Schlichting Hicks said. “And our checkbook shows it has been successful in reducing our input costs.”
Maximized water use. The farm operates 67 low-pressure pivots, using corner systems and end guns to maximize watered acreage. The corner systems and end guns are programed to turn off when not needed. Most pivots are equipped with a system that tracks running hours. They also manually track running hours using the irrigation checkbook method.
“We currently have variable frequency drives on several of our systems and continue to update more systems with VFDs each year,” Schlichting Hicks adds.
The Schlichtings also have also been testing a wireless soil moisture probe, the Virtual Optimizer through Crop Metrics, for the last five years. One probe is in the middle of the field in each crop.
“We have found the results to be accurate with this system and logistically the probes are easy to manage,” Schlichting Hicks said. “The probes provide instantaneous soil reading results electronically and they automatically track rain and irrigation events, so we can keep track of inches of water applied compared to inches allocated.”
She adds that they are still learning to trust the moisture probes.
“We continue to rely primarily on boots on the ground to make decisions,” she said. “Our team checks field moisture daily by digging a sample for a ‘feel test.’ We compare that to soil probe moisture readings to make final decisions on when to add moisture. In some instances, the detail provided by the moisture probes has given us the confidence to delay or reduce irrigation events when the ‘feel test’ alone might have told us to irrigate.”
Irrigation management. During the irrigation season, three full-time employees are dedicated to running, monitoring and maintaining the Schlichtings’ irrigation systems. After harvest, they use aerial photography and yield maps to identify problem areas and make repairs before the next crop season.
“We’re very fortunate to have such a qualified crew working on our irrigation,” Schlichting Hicks adds. “Their attention to the details and years of experience allow us to make really responsible irrigation decisions.”
To fully understand their irrigated water use, the Schlichtings began participating last year in a two-year flow meter study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Flow meters were installed to measure actual water volume used by each irrigation system.
“Historically, we reported water usage to the DNR based on a pumps capacity,” Schlichting Hicks said. “In reality, irrigation systems don’t operate at full capacity 100% of the time. Many systems have pumps larger than an irrigation system can utilize so we have been over reporting our water use.”
The DNR project is monitoring water usage in the region in order to establish a groundwater management plan that will protect a stocked DNR-designated brown trout population in Little Rock Creek. According the Board of Soil and Water Resources, the creek has supported brown trout since they were introduced into Little Rock Lake in 1908. The trout population became critically low during drought years in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result, the creek has been listed as impaired.
“Having more accurate water use data going into the DNR models for this water management plan is vital to protecting crop irrigation rights in our area,” she adds.
Soil health investments. Since the 1970s, the Schlichtings have used cover crops in their fields. They follow a three-crop rotation — corn, kidney beans and potatoes — and regularly integrate alfalfa.
They use cereal rye as their cover crop on all their fields because it has proven to be Minnesota-winter hardy and it has a quick germination.
“The quick germination is really important to us because potatoes are harvested so late in the season,” Schlichting Hicks said. “We need a good root system established in the fall to ensure the cover crop will recover from the winter and hold soil in the windy spring.”
They also grow their own cover crop seed on dry field corners, buying seed every few years to maintain genetic diversity and to break disease cycles. They seed 50 pounds per acre for cover crops in fields and 76 pounds per acre when growing cover crop seed.
They spread packed cow manure from a neighbor to specific areas in fields that need extra attention, such as sandy hill tops.
“This improves organic matter and significantly reduces topsoil loss through wind erosion,” she said.
The Schlichtings have also been experimenting with reduced tillage. Last year, they planted corn directly into an alfalfa crop. When they can, they convert non-productive land to Conservation Reserve Program acreage or native prairie. Last year, they converted a poorly drained area to CRP, and historically, they convert dry corners to native prairie. And last, but not least, they have installed generous buffers around all waterways.
Below, watch a video on the family produced by NCGA: