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Soil success

Nebraska grower shares lessons from a career commitment to conservation.

Dan Gillespie will be  recognized by the American Soybean Association during the Commodity Classic in Orlando, Fla. He is the Upper Midwest region winner of ASA’s Conservation Legacy Award. 

The award recognizes outstanding environmental and conservation achievements of soybean producers. 

Gillespie follows a simple philosophy on his northeast Nebraska farm: It all starts with the soil.

But it certainly doesn’t end there. In fact, it has been a journey for Gillespie, starting with the need to control erosion to avoid losing soil from his rolling hills. The path then headed toward building better soil.

Gillespie01.jpg“Healthy soil supports healthy plants and healthy foods,” Gillespie says. “Improved soil health also brings resilience to crops in periods of droughts and intense storms.”

Gillespie grows 412 acres of corn and soybeans in Madison County, Neb., farming land in the Battle Creek watershed that has been in the family since the 1920s. The soils — mostly Nora Crofton silty clay loams on 6% to 11% slopes — are highly erodible.

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He remembers exactly when this journey began.
“We fall-plowed our cornstalks in the fall of 1985, like we always did,” he recalls. “Then, in the early spring of 1986, it rained a couple of inches and cut a gully in one of our fields about a foot wide and about 4 feet deep. That’s when I said, ‘Something has to be done.’”

That pushed him to try no-till in 1986, planting corn into soybean stubble. “It’s been full steam ahead since that point,” he says.

Adding cover

Gillespie committed the entire farm to no-till in 1991. He thought he had found the answer to his erosion concerns. But a series of intense rainfall events in 2004 showed that even more needed to be done.

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“My continuous no-till corn-bean rotation system that I thought was perfect, failed me,” he says. “I had erosion where I had never seen it before. As I walked my fields, it became apparent that I didn’t have the residue cover in my fields that I used to have.”

He theorized that the soybean residue was being consumed by the active soil biology in the no-till soils. “I had another epiphany moment,” Gillespie says. “I decided to try to protect the bean ground by adding cover crops.”

He has planted a cereal rye cover crop on all soybean stubble acres since 2006, while also experimenting with legumes and brassicas in seed mixtures; in early years, seed was aerially applied, but Gillespie has settled on drilling cover crops after corn and soybean harvest is complete.

All cropland acres have received cover crops since 2013, following a successful experiment in “planting green.”

“It was the middle of November 2011,” Gillespie recalls. “I had some rye seed left over. We had a drought, but I went and drilled 40 acres after corn under a pivot, knowing that I could provide the water if I needed to. The rye didn’t germinate much in the fall, but it came up in the spring and got started.”

When April 25, 2012, rolled around, Gillespie pulled in to this “scrubby stand” of rye and planted green — and didn’t terminate the cover crop until May 19. “Some of the rye was headed out, but the beans underneath there were doing fine. It was amazing how that little bean plant just adapted to that environment,” he says.

And they continued to flourish; the yield monitor that fall confirmed that this experiment was a success. “It was the first year that I had combined 100-bushel beans,” Gillespie says. “Not field average, but the first time that I had seen the monitor hit 95, 100, 105 bushels an acre. That told me I was doing something right. From that year on, I decided that there would be a cover crop after corn as well as after beans, a continuous cover cropping system to keep the soil alive as much as possible.”

Boost organic matter

There also are numbers that show how the soil has changed through the years as Gillespie transitioned to no-till and cover crops. He has an amazing track record of success in building soil organic matter.

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“That started when I participated in a program sponsored by the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District,” Gillespie says. “It was a no-till incentive program. For five years, beginning in 1999, they monitored a number of things such as organic matter, pH, and cation-exchange capacity as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and zinc. I liked watching what was happening in the soils, so I have paid for that program since then.”

The result is a long-term progress report with data through 2018. It shows that implementing continuous no-till started to improve the soil organic matter slowly, around 0.05% per year from 1999 to 2005. In 2006, when he started drilling cereal rye into the soybean stubble, the rate of improvement accelerates, closer to a full 0.1% per year. And, after the integration of continuous cover crops beginning in 2013, the rate of soil organic matter improvement is at 0.15% to 0.2% per year. “If I had livestock to integrate, I’m sure I could be doing some really crazy good things out there,” he adds.

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The improvements in soil health have led to tangible benefits, such as improved water-holding capacity. Gillespie uses telemetry units along with Watermark soil sensors to drive his irrigation management, and the combination of better soils and refined water-use techniques has resulted in impressive irrigation performance. He uses less than 4 inches of water to produce a corn crop in a normal year, and only slightly more than 3.5 inches for the soybean crop.

Learning and sharing

Through the years, Gillespie has been willing to spread the message about conservation and share his experiences. He has been “Dan the Tree Man” in his hometown of Battle Creek, speaking about conservation while offering a hands-on lesson to elementary students in how to plant tree seeds. He also works with farmers in his “day job,” working as a no-till specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and has given speeches and demonstrations at many conferences and gatherings.

“Maybe I have been some kind of change agent,” Gillespie reflects. “Protecting soil and building soil health makes me feel good. There are a lot of new technologies now that help us do things in a different way, and I’m proud to be part of that group of people trying some new things.”

 

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