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Progress report for long-term no-till farm

Tom J. Bechman farm equipment spreads gypsum in a crop field
SPREAD PRECISELY: Spreading lime and fertilizer where they’re needed most helps the Rulons stay current on soil fertility. Here, they demonstrated spreading gypsum at a field day on the farm.
Rodney Rulon reflects on what it takes to make conservation farming an economic success.

Rodney Rulon likes the benefits that come along with conservation farming. But the main reason his family’s farm stays in no-till with cover crops is because it makes them money.

“Conservation is the best economic choice for our farm operation,” says Rulon, Cicero, Ind. He farms with his cousins Ken and Roy, uncle Jerry, and members of the next generation.

About five years ago, Rulon spelled out for Indiana Prairie Farmer readers how he calculated income vs. expenses on no-till vs. other systems. It was profitable then, and he says it’s still profitable now. The farm shifted to continuous no-till in 1989, with now over 30 years of continuous no-till in the books. They have used cover crops for 20 years.

Soil organic matter levels are responding. “It takes time, but organic matter levels increased in one field from 2.47% to 3.58% in 10 years,” Rulon says. “It’s more typical to see a half-a-point increase over 10 years.”

Why does no-till work, even though many of their soils have natural soil drainage issues? How do they pencil out a sizable return on investment and see increases in organic matter at the same time?

Rulon points to four key reasons:

Commitment to no-till. “We believe to see maximum benefits, you must practice continuous no-till, not rotational no-till,” he emphasizes. “Tillage begets tillage. If you know there is an option to till, before long you’re tilling again.”

Improved soil drainage. Good drainage is critical to success in any farming system, and especially in no-till. Soils must breathe, and microbes and other soil inhabitants must have the environment they need to break down residue and do their own soil tillage.

“We have our own tiling equipment, and we have installed pattern tile systems as quickly as possible,” Rulon says. “Especially in central Indiana, you encounter problems with poor drainage if you don’t install pattern tile.”

Proper soil fertility. Rulon committed to doing soil sampling himself 30 years ago, and he’s still doing it, 1 acre per sample.

“We settled on 1-acre samples because that is the smallest area we can manage effectively with variable-rate technology,” he says. With the farm on a once-in-four-years sampling schedule, he pulls around 6,000 soil samples over a four-year period.

Keeping pH around 6.2 to 6.3 is the goal, he says. Until the product became more expensive, they applied a significant amount of gypsum. He believes it aided soil health and helped maintain soil pH.

Cover crops. Adding cover crops makes no-till work even better, Rulon says. Today, they rely on cereal rye heavily ahead of soybeans, also including oats, radish and rape in the mix. Ahead of corn, they lean toward heavier amounts of oats, radish and balansa clover.

“We pay attention to seeding dates for various cover crops,” he says. “As dates pass in the fall, we shift our mixes, dropping out cover crops which need earlier seeding dates.”

Cereal rye is the fallback position, even ahead of corn, since it can be sown until Nov. 10, or even later. They believe holding down cereal rye seeding rates to 35 pounds per acre helps avoid issues that can develop at higher rates.

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