A group of no-tillers gathered in one of their farm shops one afternoon to share ideas about no-till and cover crops. The topic for the day was how to persuade other people to try no-till and cover crops to help cut down on soil erosion and losing sediment and nutrients into rivers and streams. At first, answers seemed hard to come by.
Little did they realize that perhaps the answer was sitting right there among them. Kevin Horstman, Greensburg, Ind., was there to share and learn about no-till too. But until three years ago, no-tilling on his family’s farm was largely limited to soybeans. They still tilled for corn and didn’t raise cover crops.
Today, they’re moving toward 100% no-till with cover crops on as many acres as possible. What sparked the change? “I watched my neighbors, observed changes in their soil and knew what kind of crops they raised,” Horstman says. “They’ve worked with no-till and cover crops for a long time, tried lots of things, and figured out how to make it work. I decided if they could do it, we could do it, too.”
Watch, learn and do
The neighbors Horstman referred to also were sitting in the discussion: Roger Wenning and his son, Nick. The truth is that Horstman did more than watch his neighbors. For a couple of years out of high school, he worked for the Wennings, both on the farm and in their tiling and excavation business. Then Horstman had the opportunity to return to the family farm. He farms with his wife, Diana; brother-in-law Steve Gauck; and father-in-law, Tim Gauck.
The Gaucks had tried no-till corn in the past, before Horstman arrived, but results were marginal, he recalls. Many of the soils they farm are on the wet side. Natural soil drainage is somewhat poor to poor without tile.
“Once I was farming too, I still watched what Roger and Nick did,” Horstman explains. “Roger typically hosts field days and digs pits where there are cover crops. We had also dug in other fields. I could tell the soil was different where they had used cover crops for a while.”
Sometimes, watching someone else make no-till work is more valuable than just hearing that it works. It also helps if you have other factors pointing toward the need for change.
“Labor is limited in our operation because several of us have other responsibilities,” Horstman says. “If we could no-till, we would need less labor. Together, we decided it was time to change, and we’re making it work.”
From only no-tilling soybeans to planting green into cover in three years is a big change. Yet Horstman planted into green cover crops in some fields in 2019. “We were almost forced into it last year because of planting delays,” he adds. “We were able to get in to plant a couple days quicker where cover crops were still growing. We could get over the soils and still get seed planted.”
While you might think planting green in 2019 would have sent Horstman into a panic, he overcame some of his fears about the practice in 2018. Due to illness in the family, the Wennings needed someone to drive their planter tractor. Horstman pitched in.
“They were planting green and it looked kind of wild, but it worked,” Horstman recalls. “They achieved good stands. It really helped to see it work firsthand.”