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Farmer Jon Lucas kneels in the snow of a corn field Susan Harlow
THE RIGHT FORMULA: A first-generation farmer, Jon Lucas has been experimenting with crops, tillage and equipment to improve his land and profitability.

No-till in heavy clay soil is no easy task

Vermont farmer Jon Lucas says you need persistence and an understanding of soils to succeed with no-till.

Growing no-till corn in the heavy clay soils of Vermont’s Champlain Valley isn’t easy. A cold, wet spring can delay planting and bog down equipment in sticky mud.

But Jon Lucas, who milks 280 head in Orwell, Vt., has kept at it. You need persistence and an understanding of your soils to succeed, he says. “I think you can grow just as good a corn crop as you can with conventional tillage.”

No-till will save him money and free up his time, something this first-generation farmer doesn’t have much of.

“I’m a one-man show,” Lucas says. “I came into it with a bunch of loans and a pickup, and I’ve tried not to invest in a lot of equipment.

“I can’t spend 16 hours a day working in the field. And [with no-till] I’m not waiting around for the custom guy; I’m just waiting for the field to get ready. For me, it saves a lot of labor because I’m not doing all those tillage passes.”

It’s also improving compaction-prone fields.

Bad spring leads to changes

Lucas started with 150 head on the farm in 2016, renting to buy after farming for eight years in nearby Starksboro, Vt. Between pasture and cropland, he works 900 tillable acres.

His typical rotation is two years of corn and five years of hay. His first crop season he custom-planted most of his corn no-till, although some was conventionally tilled, too. It was a miserable year to get corn in the ground, and it ended up with little growth or population.

“It was pretty obvious right away — the ground has to be dry. If it’s too wet, you end up with big bricks,” he says. “The same with no-till. It has to be dry, but a lot of times it’s easier because only the top 2 inches need to be dry. Whereas with tillage, you need a couple more days for it to dry down farther. You have to know how to read your soil.”

That year he punted. During a three-day window of dry July weather, he reduce-tilled and broadcast sorghum, which gave him two cuttings. “But it doesn’t have the same energy as corn, although if it’s cut early, it’s highly digestible,” he says. “Now, it’s a Plan B.”

Last year’s conditions were the same, with cold, wet soil, and low corn population.

Susan HarlowFarmer Jon Lucas points to a wall map of his fields which drain into nearby Lake Champlain

WATER QUALITY FOCUS: Jon Lucas’ fields drain into nearby Lake Champlain, which is ground zero for water-quality initiatives in Vermont. As a result, Lucas has gotten several grants and technical assistance from the state.

“I had one field that I thought was excellent, but it rained right after seeding and drowned the crop,” he says. “These weather events are crazy these days; they can drown the crop right off.”

But Lucas replanted the drowned fields and ended up with a corn crop that was excellent in quality and quantity. The past two years he’s averaged yields of 15 tons an acre, and more on better fields.

Lucas watches how his no-till planter works in dry and wet years, then adapts it. It also helps to find corn varieties that put on a good ear.

“My hope is that keeping with no-till and cover crops, I can get to a third productive year, maybe longer,” he says.

This spring, Lucas is planning a third year of corn on fields that did well last year.

“Financially, that will put us ahead of the game because it’s expensive to do new seedings, and two-year rotations eat up all the organic matter,” he says. “But with no-till, the whole idea is to build up organic matter.”

Timing with hay

Planting the first year of corn into hay is ideal.

“It works best if you can take a first cut and then no-till into that sod, because ... you have all those roots that will break down and give you an N boost, and it’s wicked easy to plant,” Lucas says. “But you have to plant as soon as the hay is off.”

Lucas has tried different varieties of hay. At first his fields were mostly alfalfa, tall fescue, clover and reed canarygrass. But the tall fescue resulted in “lackluster” forage, so he’s been trying other varieties such as meadow fescue.

“Reed takes a year or two to establish but does better in wet soils,” he says. “Alfalfa can really save the day if it’s dry because of the taproot, but it may rot overwinter where winters aren’t so cold anymore.

“If you can start early, take first-cut by 20th of May, you’re going to have a good year. You’ll get an extra cutting, and corn is better established.”

Manure spreading can be a big challenge in these soils, Lucas adds.

“We want to get it out there, but with clay, soil compaction is an issue,” he says. “Someday we will be all drag lines or injection instead of spreading.”

Susan HarlowFarmer Jon Lucas stands near a fence with a scenic view of fields and mountains behind him in Orwell, Vt.

ONE-MAN SHOW: “I came into it with a bunch of loans and a pickup,” Lucas says. He’s doubled his cow herd in the four years he’s farmed in Orwell, Vt.

With manure injection it goes on in one pass; no worries about runoff or losing nitrogen. But custom injection equipment is too expensive for him and the custom outfits in his area are too busy and short on labor.

Tinkering with cover crops

Lucas cover crops mostly rye, although he’s experimented with triticale and winter wheat. He lets his rye go until just after planting corn before he kills it.

Last year, with a state grant for a no-till drill, he drilled cover crops between Oct. 10-15, which worked well for a late planting year. The drill is also useful for interseeding hay to keep it in rotation longer and for sprucing up highly erodible land that remains in hay.

The Champlain Valley Crop, Soil, and Pasture Team, which helped him get the grant, has been a big help to Lucas and other farmers in the Lake Champlain watershed, the main focus for federal and state water-quality initiatives.

“When I began here, I did both no-till and conventional,” he says. “I am finding now that the longer it’s in no-till, the better the soil is doing. But it needs time to build up organic matter, get bugs and worms working so the soil is an actual living thing. And you need to understand soil health; you need to understand the why and what to make it happen.”

Harlow writes from Vermont.

TAGS: Soil Health
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