You don’t have to explain to Roger Wenning, Greensburg, Ind., what a fragipan looks like or how slowly water moves through wet, flat Clermont soils and adjacent soils that are somewhat poorly drained. He knows about those soil types all too well — they are part of life where he and his wife, Mary Beth, farm and run a tiling and excavation business. Yet it hasn’t stopped them from improving soils to the point that they can produce farm-average yields that rival those anywhere in the state.
For these efforts and the roles they play in the ag industry and their community, the Wennings are jointly receiving the 2019 Master Farmer award, co-sponsored by Indiana Prairie Farmer and the Purdue University College of Agriculture.
“All of the land we own is pattern-tiled,” Roger says. “You can make drainage work on our soils, and timeliness and good yields starts with good drainage. The next part of the equation is improving the structure of these soils. We believe strongly in soil health and do what we can to continuously improve soil health in our soils.”
The Wennings are primarily 100% no-till today, after trying strip till on some fields for a while. But no-till is only part of the equation for improving soil structure and soil health, Roger believes. He began looking at cover crops long before most of the modern-movement cover-croppers got in the game.
“I decided if we were going to improve our soils, we needed cover crops to do it,” he says. “We’ve held numerous field days, dug pits, put out plots and done whatever we could to learn which cover crops work the best and how they need to be managed.”
A key part of that process is sharing what he learns with other people. Roger has opened his farm on more occasions than he can count, for local farmers and soil conservation professionals. The Wenning farm is one of the demonstration farms for the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative program. Many farmer, university and industry experts on cover crops and soil health have presented at field days on their farm.
Roger and Mary Beth don’t keep two businesses — the farm and the tiling and excavating enterprise — running by themselves. Their son, Nick, and his wife, Julie, are part of the operation. Roger’s sister, Marita Field, also works daily both in the farm shop and in the field.
One thing the Wennings believe in is twin-row planting. They moved up from a six-row to a 12-row Great Plains twin-row planter in 2018. It allows them to use higher seeding rates on fields where they are confident the soil can support it. They practice variable-rate seeding, varying from 34,000 to 44,000 corn seeds per acre.
“We’ve also moved to planting green,” Roger says. “We have done it in soybeans for a long time, and now do it for corn, too. It seems to deliver good stands for us.”
The Wennings have been in no-till and cover crops long enough that they now experiment with various mixes of cover crop species, depending on what they’re trying to accomplish. Depending on the spring, they’ve been able to burn down the grass component and let clover grow another two weeks or more before planting.
“We want to grow as much nitrogen as we can,” Roger explains. “We’re not afraid to try something if it looks like there might be a payoff.”
Recently, they stopped using insecticide seed treatments on soybeans, although they still apply fungicides. “It’s really about protecting beneficial insects and organisms,” Roger says. “It’s just another way we’re fine-tuning the system.”
Check out the slideshow to see photos of the Wenning operation, and read what others have to say about Roger and Mary Beth and their Master Farmer nomination.