Lucas Criswell is the kind of farmer who learns by doing. So, don’t tell him that he can’t plant corn into knee-high rye.
“Don't tell me it can't be done because we'll try and prove you wrong," he says.
At the end of the day, it’s about his farm’s long-term survival.
“You need to learn how to adapt to stay profitable for years to come,” he told attendees of a recent no-till conference in Washington, N.J.
Criswell farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat, rye and canola in Lewisburg, Pa. He farms with his father, who he says was one of the earliest adopters of no-till in the area.
By the late ’80s, his father was no-tilling corn, but unlike other farmers who could devote all their time to the operation, Criswell’s father had a full-time mail route.
“So, it was kind of adopted for time savings and to save fuel,” he says.
“What was kind of unique is my dad was not a high-input farmer. He didn’t have the time to put into it what other farmers did, but we always seemed to stay profitable,” he says.
In 1993, his father bought the farm’s first no-till drill and they transitioned to 100% no-till. Criswell used the drill to custom-plant 1,000 acres of soybeans for other farmers. It gave him the chance to see what was working on other farms.
By the 2000s, Criswell was importing manure from a 400-cow dairy. They were also delving into cover crops.
“In 2001, I was managing 6 million gallons of manure on a no-till operation when everybody said it couldn’t be done. But the key ingredient is the living cover,” he says.
Taking chances with inter-seeding
Like most farmers, Criswell managed his cover and cash crops using chemicals and fertilizer.
“I thought I needed all the chemicals and fertilizer for my planting because that’s what industry told me I needed,” he says.
Then he met soil health consultant Ray Archuleta, who challenged him to think about the soil’s living roots and building “armor” to help control weeds and insects.
He started experimenting with interseeding cover crops in 2008. In May 2009, he did an early burndown of the cover crop and a Roundup application at beginning of planting, but he quickly learned that it was like making two tillage passes in the fields.
Criswell also started seeing issues with slugs and thought the “brown and down” method of killing the cover would take care of them. But the slugs got worse.
“We started doing experiments with planting corn and cereal rye together,” he says. “The goal was to give the slugs something green to eat.”
He planted corn into knee-high rye when university experts were telling him not to plant into green covers.
“The funny part is that the corn still grew,” he says. “This is not pretty farming. This is not going to look like your grandpa’s cornfield anymore.”
He also learned that green covers were a cheap way to get more carbon into the soil as they capture sunlight and convert it into soil carbon.
“My goal is to build armor and help the slugs. Low and behold, the corn grew through it,” he says.
It can take time before seeing good results from transitioning to no-till and using cover crops. Criswell says his “a-ha” moment came five years ago, when a freak midsummer storm dumped 5 inches of rain on his fields in one hour.
On a hill overlooking his fields, Criswell had three different corn plots he was comparing: one where corn was planted into existing stubble; one where corn was planted after a cover crop burndown; and a plot of corn interseeded into knee-high rye.
Criswell says the storm did its damage in the stubble plot, but he says “the field with the rye didn’t even move.”
He was also surprised by his corn yields: 203 bushels in the interseeded plot, 202 bushels in the burned-off plot and 202 in the stubble plot.
“Some people would say, ‘That’s the same yield, why would you ever mess around with the big cover?’ But you have to look past it. If you’re not going to plant something there, nature is going to take care of itself and plant a weed there for you, so why not grow something that’s beneficial,” he says.
Criswell says he stopped using treated soybeans on his 600 acres, instead letting rye grow with his soybeans to build more armor. It’s led to some issues with bean leaf beetle, but it’s also led to more beneficial insects in the fields, saving him thousands of dollars.
He planted all non-GMO corn and soybeans in 2018 to save money, but he’s seen only mixed results. He’s even planted untreated corn into big rye cover.
“It’s so refreshing to put nontreated corn into the planter and not get the smell of treated corn in your nose,” he says.
His newest experiment is planting 30-inch wheat into corn stubble and 30-inch soybeans between the wheat.
“We just did this on a whim. The uniqueness is to have these two crops growing together,” he says.
The soybeans were harvested this fall while the wheat and straw stayed behind as a cover.
Criswell says he used a group 2 soybean in the plot, but in hindsight says that he should have used a longer-season variety.
The plot yielded 30 bushels an acre of soybeans and 30 bushels an acre of wheat. He used a non-GMO soybean and wheat seed he got from a neighbor, so his investment was minimal. Still, he broke even.
The experiments aren’t just for his benefit. As a board member of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, Criswell says many farmers are looking for answers to questions university researchers often don’t have the time or resources to investigate.
“These small plots are where we want to prove things will work, and guys have questions that need answered quickly,” Criswell says. “When guys have questions, we’re doing it and we’re making it work. If it doesn’t work, we’ll drop it and do something else, and it’s hard for universities to change that quick.”
Criswell says farmers shouldn’t be afraid to try new things if they think it could be beneficial.
“Look, at the end of the year when it’s tax time, it's not about the biggest yield, it's about the most profitability," he says. “And that is the direction I'm taking my farm. The dollars and cents add up big time at the end of the year.”