Building soil health on your farm

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Indiana farmer Rick Clark shares his ideas on no-till and crop rotations during the Soil Health Expo in Juneau last week.  His goal is to build the soil health on his farm to the point that he doesn’t need any herbicides or fertilizers.

JUNEAU – “The success of next year’s cash crop depends on the success of this year’s cover crop,” says Indiana organic cash crop farmer Rick Clark.

Speaking at the Dodge County Soil Health Expo in Juneau last week, Clark outlined his strategies for building soil health to the point that no commercial fertilizers or herbicides are needed.

His goal is to build soil health and that comes through diversifying with more crops in the rotation and feeding the life in the soil with more cover crops. He also keeps good records and monitors how every strategy works.

“Being a good steward of the land involves many things," Clark said. "The goal is not to improve yields but to build healthy soil. That takes some time.”

Paying attention

Clark says farmers need to pay attention to what is happening in their fields.

"If you have a blown out tile, fix it. If a waterway is needed to prevent erosion, build it," he said.

Clark is often questioned about how he can plant non-GMO corn without using any insecticides. His response is, “If you quit killing the beneficial life in the soil they will protect the crop.”

The Indiana native describes what he calls “prescription tillage,” in which he sets up the planter to plant three inches deep using a “U” slot in the opener, not a “V”. He uses this method because the press wheel cannot reach the seed when it is in a “V” slot.

Clark shared his personal experience with his planter, noting that the computerized control for applying weight on the planter to push it into the soil indicated that he didn’t need to push it down at all. While neighbors were applying pressure to push the planter into their harder soil, his monitors indicate he does not need the downward pressure to push it into his loose soil.

Clark concedes that vertical tillage can be used successfully but cautions, “If you don’t get enough growth (of the cover crop) you will have an erosion problem, so you need to establish your cover early enough.”

The organic cash-crop farmer says he uses a roller-crimper to kill off his cover crops after the new crop has been planted into it. This method works well for covers like cereal rye but will not kill off all covers such as crimson clover.

Establishing, terminating covers

When he establishes covers, Clark likes to use a cocktail mix with each species serving a specific purpose. That mixture varies from farm to farm and from field to field, depending on the goals set for that field.

A typical recipe for a mix that must be established at least by September 1 includes: 30 lbs. haywire oats; 5 lbs. Austrian peas; 5 lbs. Balansa fixation clover; 3 lbs. sorghum/sudan (to kill fungi); and 3 lbs. tillage radishes (Note: Roots go deep to bring up nutrients and improve drainage).

In spring Clark plants green into the peas and clover. The other three species die off in winter.

Looking at the economics of his systems, he says testing is important. 

“I’ve tested and the cost-savings of nitrogen not purchased and the cost of the Balansa fixation clover is about the same, but if you look at what it is doing for the soil health –such as building calcium levels and other nutrients – the savings are huge,” he said.

Clark admits the numbers vary year to year with weather and timing making a big difference in the success or failure of a program.

He points out the benefit of the mass of growth on fields when it comes to weed suppression. 

“I plant into a very heavy bio-mass green and then crimp six weeks later,” he says.

In the case of planting soybeans into the heavy bio-mass, Clark says that soybeans set their nodes 2-3 inches apart with this system instead of the traditional 6-inch spacing.

Timing is everything

Timing of the planting and crimping is important. Rolling must be done in the boot stage for cereal rye when the stem is the most brittle. The soybeans should be at the V2 stage. If crimping is delayed until the V3 stage there will be some damage to the soybeans. That’s why planting into the biomass before the rye is at the boot stage is dangerous because if planting is done too early the beans may be too big before the rye is ready for crimping.

Establishing buffers of pollinator crops is a good way to separate non-GMO land from GMO land without wasting land, according to Rick Clark, an Indiana organic cash cropper.

Clark also mentioned his strategy for establishing the 60-foot buffer strips required between neighbor’s GMO fields and his fields with non-GMO crops.

“I don’t like to see land wasted so I establish pollinator crops including sunflowers and other flowering plants on those strips,” he says. “It’s beneficial to crops and it is also good PR in the neighborhood. People stop at the road to take pictures of the flowering crops.”

Getting started

He concluded by listing some basic rules for getting started.

“Start easy and do not get in over your head,” he says. “I worry about people starting with more than they can manage and then if it doesn’t work they won’t come back to it.”

Other rules include:

  • Don’t plant wheat following beans in rolled rye unless it will be harvested as wheatlage.  There will be some volunteer rye in the field and buyers will reject the wheat if it is sold as grain.
  • Know the date for winter kill in your area and make sure the cover is planted early enough to cover the ground before frost;
  • Remember, there are no failures – only unexpected outcomes.  Treat them as a learning experience.
  • It’s okay to shorten the relative maturity of a cash crop because of the cover.  It is more important to get more cover out there.
  • Network with neighbors;
  • Scout fields to stay on top of problems;
  • Do not panic – ask for help;
  • Educate landlords on what you are doing. In many cases they will give long-term contracts if they know the soil in their fields is gradually improving with these methods.
  • Be aware of residual chemicals that may have been used earlier.
  • Don’t turn your whole farm into a test.  Go slow.

Clark’s presentation was shared with an audience of approximately 80 farmers and he commended them for coming to the meeting where they can network with each-other.  Another 50 joined the meeting via the internet. He highlighted the benefits of networking at meetings and learning from one-another so that mistakes are not repeated and successes are tried by others.

Wisconsin results

Following his presentation, Erin Silva, Associate Professor in the plant pathology Department at the University of Wisconsin shared results of fields that she has been monitoring at the Arlington research farm to compare various methods.

Silva says, “It is important that we use a systems-based approach. The practices we do on our farms do influence what kind of life is in the soil.”

She shared results from on-going research comparing five different systems for several decades at Arlington, and also offered advice for getting started, echoing the “rules of thumb” Clark listed based on his years of experience.