The quest to improve soil health and water quality is never ending on Sunny Slopes Farm in Bucyrus. The Brause family, with more than 150 years of farming in Crawford and Richland counties, doesn't believe the measure of success is tallied by the number of bushels per acre, nor is profitability.
"You really need to consider what the cost is per bushel and what the toll is on land and water resources," says Nathan Brause, who has taken over and expanded the farm that started with his grandfather, Glenn, and then his father, Tim.
The entire 1,600 farm is 100% planted with cover crops and no tilled. The family has implemented conservation techniques like precision nutrient management with variable rate application, wind breaks, tree plantings, grass filter strips and waterways. For its efforts, the Brause family will be recognized with a 2018 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award during Farm Science Review after being nominated by Mike Hall, Crawford County Soil and Water Conservation program administrator.
Nathan started with filter strips, waterways and quail buffers, but was still doing full tillage until the late 1990s when he started strip tillage. Tired of nutrients being washed down the river, Nathan fabricated a machine to strip till while incorporating fertilizer. He liked the results and took it a step further. For the last nine years, everything is no till with cover crops.
"I've seen huge benefits to the soil," Nathan says. "The water coming off is a lot cleaner, especially with new waterways. Now, when we get a 4-inch rain, that water is clear, and it never was that way before."
For cover crops, he started with a rye and still uses it extensively. One of his favorites now, though, is hairy vetch. "Wherever we have hairy veg, that's our best corn," he says. Last year he planted a six-way blend, and he's trying a 10-way this year.
Up until four years ago, Nathan was on board with a common practice of killing the cover crop mid-April, waiting two weeks for it to get brown and crispy, and then planting it. "We've realized now there is so much more benefit to waiting until the day you plant, or after, to kill it," he says.
"With cover crops, you are getting so much more soil tilth," Nathan says. "And, the later you wait (to kill it), that older cover crop will put down roots deeper. In the dry summer months, corn roots will keep going down all those root paths. The best tillage tool you can have is cover crops."
Being able to "plant green" all comes down to the planter, which Nathan has addressed by combining a 20-year-old planter with current technology to clear a path, while also applying the right hydraulic downforce to get the seed into the ground.
There's no one set recipe for success, and Nathan's quick to point out a lot of problems they've had with cover crops and the necessary adjustments. "But, the way I look at it, it's not an option — and it has to be a good stand," he says.
It's a waiting game in spring for all farmers, but for no-till, it's a perfected mindset.
"If 3 inches down it's still cold and wet, you can't plant that with no-till," he adds.
Some of Nathan's fields were planted almost a month later than other fields.
"We had to wait until it was right, and I don't mind it being spread out; it spreads our risk," he adds.
To establish a good stand the following year, Nathan uses high clearance cover crop seeding into standing crops as early as mid-August.
It takes patience to see the benefits of a no-till, cover cropping system. Eighteen years ago, the Brause family acquired a conventionally farmed, 35-acre parcel in Ontario. According to Tri-State Cooperative numbers, Nathan says the farm should have been perfect. He saw otherwise, noting the lack of organic matter, calcium and other key components of good soil tilth.
He started planting it to hay, and it's now in row crops. The organic matter has climbed from 1.3% to 1.5% to 4%.
Nathan urges farmers to seek out information beyond what the co-op is providing. He has hosted numerous workshops and tours on the farm to provide education and demonstrate conservation practices.
Backing away from commercial fertilizer and looking for nutrient sources, three years ago Nathan started using chicken litter. "I really like that it has a concentration of nutrients for the tonnage compared to conventional manures," he says. "The microbial component helps with organic matter and works well with a cover crop system, which utilizes it right way, takes it up and then when the cover crop dies, it releases it back to the soil."
In 1988, Glenn and Tim Brause fabricated a disc with an office chair in the middle and planted 40,000 black walnut trees on 40 acres of marginal cropland.
Last year, they added another 21 acres of hardwood, and they manage and produce maple syrup.
On the north side of the woods, quail buffers were planted with native wildflowers and cool and warm season grasses.
"Soil and water conservation are, and always will be, first and foremost on this farm," Nathan says. "When I'm done farming, I want the soil to be in better shape than when I started — without a doubt, it will be."
More on Nathan and Carrie Brause
• The family: Nathan and Carrie are the parents of Alex, 20, Allie, 16, and Andy, 18.
• The farm: Sunny Slopes Farm in Crawford County consists of 1,600 acres, with 61 being in woodlands. The rest is divided between 20 acres of grass waterways, 24 acres of filter strips, 7.8 acres of CRP quail buffer.
• Nominated by: Mike Hall, Crawford County Soil and Water Conservation program administrator.
• Conservation outreach: Nathan has been a speaker at numerous events and hosted several on-farm workshops/field days, including multiple local elected official tours, cover crop field plot demonstrations, no-till and soil health field days, cover crops farm tour, SWCD pond clinic and forest workshops. YouTube videos "Planting Green" and "High Clearance" were produced and shared.
• Community leadership: Nathan has served as the SWCD supervisor for 13 years and is currently chairman; "Farmer to Farmer" board member for the Eastern Ohio United Methodist Church mission group to Africa; 4-County SWCD Join Manure Nutrient Management board member; Erin Basin RC&D Council Joint Board member; Ohio Tree Farm member; Ohio Walnut Council member; and a 4-H Livestock Committee member. He has spoken to numerous groups and at conferences.