Making changes and trying new things are always risky, admits Indiana farmer Rick Clark, but it's also rewarding. He suggests a few simple rules:
· Go slow.
· With all the variables, plan beyond next week and with plans E and F, not just plan B.
· Have a thick skin and don't worry about what the neighbors say.
· Work towards big goals of saving the planet by building soil health, regenerating the soil and slowing down greenhouse gasses by building carbon in the soil.
· Work with Mother Nature, not against her.
· Perfect your system, and you'll be able to raise 200-bushel corn on an annual basis and still build soil health.
Rick Clark's middle name could be change. In the past 10 years this Williamsport, Ind., farmer has incorporated cover crops into a mixed no-till/conventional system, shifted to almost 100% no-till and is now dedicated to planting everything green.
Farming on both sides of the Illinois-Indiana border and a little north of I-74, Clark plants non-GMO soybeans and corn in rotations with wheat and alfalfa. And he is transitioning to organic on much of the 7,000 acres he owns or manages for family members.
He is substituting rolling and crimping for chemical termination of covers and learning that patience in planting pays. He has shifted corn planting from mid-April to mid-May to maximize spring legume growth and nitrogen fixation.
Starts with small change
"I wake up every day and find something to change," says Clark. "If I wake up at 2:00 a.m. with an idea to reinvent the wheel, I won't risk the livelihood of the farm on it, but I'll try it on 30 acres. If it fails, I've learned something. If it works, I'll try it on more acres.
"Incorporating cover crops with no-till corn and soybeans had its own trials and tribulations, but I've learned a lot," he adds. "Our fields are so mellow and soft now that our Delta Force Precision Planting systems are more for holding the planting units up rather than pushing them down."
Change continues for the 54-year-old farmer. This spring he no-tilled some of his soybeans into standing cereal rye at boot stage. When the soybeans hit V1 to V2 and the rye was at full anthesis, he rolled and crimped it with a Rodale-style crimper from I & J Manufacturing on a Harms trailed frame. On other acres he waited for the rye to reach anthesis before no-tilling in soybeans and immediately rolling and crimping. He has also rolled covers ahead of the planter. Regardless of when he rolls and crimps, the soybeans come through.
"When the beans wiggle through the flattened rye, they explode in the sunlight," says Clark.
Local alfalfa market benefits
He admits a nearby dairy gives him a big advantage when it comes to soil health. Their need for alfalfa keeps it in his rotation, and he gets the benefit of their manure on his fields. When volunteer cereal rye contaminated a winter wheat crop, he was able to market it to the dairy as wheatlage. Both wheat and silage corn, with their early harvests, open the door for planting complex cover crop cocktail mixes.
Even full season acres get as complex a cover crop as he can give them. If the acres are in a soybean/corn rotation, he will plant early-season soybeans so he can get his seven or eight-way cocktail mix in the ground by September 20th, if possible. Fields going into soybeans get a mix of cereal rye and other species. He will plant radish as late as October 15. He also likes forage peas.
"After last year's soybeans, I planted a mix of oats, three types of clover, vetch, sorghum Sudan, radish and cereal rye," says Clark. "The rye, clovers and vetch overwintered, thanks to protection provided by the oats and other winter killed covers. On May 10th I planted corn in clover that was 12 to 18 inches tall and cereal rye that was three feet tall."
Five years ago Clark's legumes never overwintered, or so he thought. Certainly they weren't there when he would plant corn in mid-April. "In 2013 it rained for three weeks, delaying planting to mid-May. By the time it stopped, the clover was knee high," recalls Clark. "Since then I wait until the legumes are full growth before I plant to fix more nitrogen. Those who don't see them overwinter may not be waiting long enough in the spring."
When planting corn green, he rolls the cereal rye after planting without waiting for it to reach anthesis. That decision was prompted when checking the rows at planting; he felt rye stems snap under foot. He also noted that the rye driven on at planting stayed down.
"Rolling the field killed about two thirds of the rye, and then I sprayed to terminate the remaining rye, as well as the clover and vetch," says Clark.
Covers reduce weeds
Clark gives the covers credit for reducing weed pressure and herbicide costs and the legumes credit for a late season nitrogen fix. Assigning credit for benefits from a previous rotation crop or the cover crops that follow gets complicated. Clark argues that doing it accurately on a yearly basis is impossible. Include alfalfa in a rotation and you have to go out four years when figuring benefits, but even that isn't enough for him. He has a spreadsheet with planned crop and cover crops for every field through 2025.
"I can't look at annualized returns," says Clark. "How do I evaluate ROI year by year if I take a year off from a cash crop to plant a massive cover crop cocktail mix, produce a 200-bushel corn crop the next year and take a wheat crop the following year, all with minimal inputs. We need to think long-term and have a plan to build soil health and maximize our return on investment."
That doesn't mean the plan won't change.