Mike Starkey’s shop door is always open to people wanting to learn about agriculture, particularly soil health. He recently welcomed a group of Chinese scientists with interests related to the environment to his farm. His passion took over and the language barrier dissolved when he began talking about cover crops, no-till, soil health and saving money on input costs.
The idea of growing a cover crop that you don’t harvest was new to his visitors, but once they got the concept, the questions flowed.
“So do you have to apply more fertilizer or less fertilizer with cover crops in your system?” one guest asked.
“I apply considerably less fertilizer than I did many years ago when I farmed with conventional methods,” Starkey said. “My soil is alive, and it helps release phosphorus and potassium from the soil back to my crops.”
There was no sugarcoating in his explanation. “In the 1970s and 1980s, farmers were trying to grow as much grain as possible, and most fields were tilled,” he noted. “We wound up with soil compaction. Roots got down about 16 to 20 inches, hit a layer and went sideways. They couldn’t get to the moisture and nutrients below that depth.
“I farmed that way at one time. But at the price of corn and with input costs rising, especially costs for tillage equipment, I knew I had to make a change if I wanted to continue farming. That’s when I began no-tilling. Cover crops followed. But all this didn’t happen overnight. It takes time to get there,” Starkey explained.
“My dad and grandpa used to apply phosphorus and potassium fertilizer according to typical recommendations, and so did about everybody else,” Starkey continued. “As it turns out, they applied more than the crop could use. So levels built up in the soil.
“In my system, cover crop roots and earthworms help till the soil. Cover crop roots can go down 4 to 5 feet. They bring up nutrients, and after I terminate the cover crop, those residues eventually break down. When they do, the P and K and even nitrogen, which they scavenged and brought up, are available to the crops.
“What it amounts to is that I am using the fertilizer my dad and granddad applied on this farm years ago,” Starkey concluded.
It didn’t take long for one visitor to sum up what he was saying. “So your father and grandfather left you an inheritance in the soil,” she quipped.
All joking aside, Starkey believes that in a very real way, that’s true. By managing his crop rotation and cover crops, and keeping something green growing as many months as possible, he’s recycling nutrients.
“We grow mainly corn and soybeans, but we work about 10% wheat into our rotation,” he said. “One reason for doing that is so that I can apply a mixture of cover crops later in the summer after the wheat is harvested.”
Starkey uses a seven-way mix in those instances. Several species in the mix do best when planted in late summer, earlier than he could plant them after corn or soybeans.
“Buckwheat is especially good at helping recycle phosphorus,” Starkey said. “It’s finding P that built up in the soil from when my granddad and dad applied it.”