The Rulon family has seen lots of changes since their farm was founded in 1869. One thing that hasn't changed is their commitment to caring for the land so more generations can make a living on it, explained Rodney Rulon, who now operates the 6,000-acre corn/soybean operation with his cousins, Ken and Roy, along with the next generation, Nick and Neal.
"We're really in the long-term business of raising kids," Rodney said.
Today, the Indianapolis suburbs continue to sprawl ever nearer to their Arcadia, Indiana, farm, a fact of life always in the back of their minds as they plan for the future. After Rodney, Ken and Roy took over in the 1980s and 1990s, they began to try new technology, just as their forebears did years ago, including no-till, geographic information systems (GIS), variable-rate seeding and soil sampling on 1-acre grids, among other things.
All along, they continued to focus on improving soil health as a way to push for financial stability.
"Yield is the outcome of managing soil," Ken said. "We don't think degradation of soil is the answer. We can prove we're capturing carbon with no-till and cover crops, and we can prove there is yield potential.
"There is something to be said for playing the long game every day," he continued. "Our view is that one generation from now, tillage will be widely acknowledged as wasting carbon. What I'm worried about is the future of my grandkids on this land, not me."
What's right for their farm might not be the right course of action for others. Yet, plenty of farmers pay attention to what the Rulons do through the Peer Network, a farm-management and strategy group that meets yearly at their farm.
"We can't suggest that other farmers take our system and just plop it down on their land and expect it to work. This is not a first-year business proposition, and it is not a next-year one, either. It takes planning and vision," Ken said.
"We tell farmers to plan for what's really going to happen, not what's perfect," he continued. "Where we farm, things aren't perfect. This is not eastern Iowa. We don't have 3 feet of black soil to bail us out." What works for them, then?
Fifteen years ago, the Rulons began using cover crops. They've learned to keep something green and growing on those fields year-round. Bare soil is tantamount to disaster in their system. Machinery is now good enough to make their cover-crop system manageable.
"Corn planters can plant into just about anything. Hydraulic pressure, trash wheels and variable-rate seeding make it possible. We spent 30 years developing this system to capture carbon," Ken said. "We're just trying to do the right thing for our farm. We're not telling anybody else what to do, but we can talk about what works for us."
Their mix of cover crops varies from field to field, depending on the crop to follow and soil conditions. Ahead of corn, they use oats, radish, rape and crimson clover along with some cereal rye. Going to soybeans, it's oats, radish and rape early, followed by cereal rye on later-harvested ground. Austrian winter peas and vetch also figure into their mixes.
In 2017, their cover crop costs ran $22.71 per acre, including labor, machinery and fuel. They calculate their net long-term profit from planting cover crops at $57.76 per acre, with a total economic boost of $418,430 across their farm, taking into account both short-term and long-term benefits.
It's going back to something that worked through the generations. "Grandpa used cover crops, and he was pretty smart," Rodney said.
They've been entirely no-till since 1989, a switch came about for practical reasons. "We looked at the erosion coming off our fields and knew that couldn't continue. We're in a watershed that serves Indianapolis," Rodney said. "Our runoff goes directly into the water supply. We worked long term to have a good relationship with neighbors and do what we can to improve quality of water that leaves the farm. We're trying to be good stewards."
"We found another way to do things through no-till. There were also labor and equipment savings with no-till that helped, as well. We are both conservation-minded and production-minded."
Those two things go hand in hand for the Rulons. "If you consider everything involved, conservation is economically the best model. Short term, there is no benefit to putting inputs out there that don't provide a return. In the long term, it is detrimental [because of the] impact [it has on] the water leaving the farm," Rodney said.
PROTECT THE WATERSHED
The Rulons' cover-crop mixes now drive their water-quality philosophy. "Cover crops keep nitrates out of the water. They're utilizing the nitrate before it can get in the water and leave the farm. Cover-crop mixes do a nice job if you tailor the mix to capture nitrogen, such as cereal rye that's out there all winter and rapeseed that comes on in spring," Rodney said.
"The idea is that anytime a living root intersects N in the soil profile, and it captures it to use it later, that N isn't going to leave the field," he continued. "Carbon-capture technology is the key indicator for us. If we do the right things, soil organic matter will be increasing. If it's going down, then we'd obviously be doing something wrong."
Their goal is to keep finding ways to get better at matching up sustainability and yield. They also work on water issues with an ambitious tile-drainage program. Their area tends to have excessive water in fields in springtime. Good drainage can make as much as a 100-bushel difference in per-acre corn yields, they find.
"Subsurface drainage is essential in this part of our county," Rodney said. "It's important for healthy soil, too. Subsurface drainage helps make the no-till, cover crops and soil-quality programs work. If you're not doing tillage, which we're not, you'd better drain it on our soil types."
Drain tiles are placed at 30 inches below the surface. "That lets the roots go down, and water-seeking roots will go well below that. You have to get water away from the root zone so the roots can grow," Rodney said.
Managing soil fertility is the next key to improving soil long term. One-acre grid-sampling gives the Rulons a good map of how to do that.
"Our highest priority on these soils is the calcium level," Rodney said. "To get good soil structure without compaction, you need to manage calcium levels. We use both high-calcium lime and gypsum to manage it. Once calcium is in line, we make sure P [phosphorus] and K [potassium] are in line."
They use both chicken litter and hog manure (from their own farrow-to-finish hog barn) in the fertility program, put out with a low-disturbance applicator. They're even working on a way to apply chicken litter variable-rate. It goes along with their philosophy of only applying what the crop needs.
"We are still learning on a lot of this. We learn every year. Each year is different. There's a lot more to some of these things than you'd realize. It takes different skill sets, and you have to learn as you go," Rodney said.
However, some things remain constant.
"We have tried as a family since the 1930s to follow some core beliefs," Ken said. "One is to adopt technology quickly. The mindset from our great-grandfather is to apply technology quickly to survive. Second, focus on maximum economic yield, not maximum yield. Since farmers are price-takers in the commodity, whatever it is, the goal is always maximum economic yield. Another thing is to keep learning.
"Play the long game every day. If you let water and wind erosion hurt sustainability, someday society will make you pay," he continued. "We want to do things that let us be cost-effective long term. It's all about long-term competitive positioning. No study ever said you could grow more with less carbon. We are driven by long-term economic sustainability."
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