Ten years ago, Darrell Shover was facing some tough decisions about his farming operation in far northern Indiana, near Syracuse.
"I was a conventional farmer who plowed everything, and my worn-out equipment needed to be replaced. That was going to be very expensive for a guy who farms under 1,000 acres," he recalls. "I'd dabbled a little with no-till on some rented land, and after some conservation meetings, I realized I could keep farming a lot less expensively if I just used a planter and a sprayer -- particularly if I took advantage of cost-share money through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). That convinced me to do it."
EQIP provides cost-share funds along with technical and educational assistance for participating growers striving to improve their production while at the same time enhancing environmental quality on their farms.
Today, after an initial five-year EQIP contract and participation in an additional five-year Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Shover says his operation is 100% no-till, his corn yields are up 8 to 9% despite the elimination of one fertilizer application, and his sandy ground takes less water to produce crops. By adopting cover crops, Shover no longer runs a rotary hoe to break up the soil for crop emergence. Bottom line: He is spending less time in the field burning diesel fuel than during his "conventional farming" days.
Shover's operation includes 680 acres of cropland rotated in corn, soybeans, wheat and cover crops, along with 40 acres of pasture on which he backgrounds 40 to 50 calves each fall. In addition, he farms another 70 acres in partnership with a relative.
Elkhart County NRCS district conservationist Amanda Kautz says over the years, Shover's farm has become a destination for many demonstrations on the benefits of no-till and the use of cover crops in soil building.
"Darrell's first EQIP contract included about $45 per enrolled acre for three years for switching to no-till, plus adopting cover crops, basic nutrient-management practices and a basic Integrated Pest Management program," she explains. "That same contract also included a two-year program for implementing rotational grazing of his livestock enterprise through fencing and waterline installations, plus the installation of a geotextile material that provides a hard surface in high livestock-use areas to prevent ponding and water runoff."
Kautz adds, "He's currently involved in a CSP for roughly $18 per acre to help him continue his soil stewardship activities along with the adoption of an intensive no-till corn, soybean, wheat and cover-crop rotation to provide soil-erosion protection throughout the year."
She says the current program also supports an enhanced nutrient-management program that calls for presidedress nitrate testing and end-of-season stalk sampling to monitor nitrate levels.
Shover says the last decade's experience with NRCS assistance has made him a better farmer and has markedly improved his operation's production efficiency.
"When I was still plowing every year, my corn yields were about 140 bushels per acre," he explains. "Now, we average 150 to 160 bushels, and that's directly linked to better nutrient management through the use of soil and tissue sampling."
Shover's typical practice is to follow corn with soybeans, then drill a winter wheat crop with his Case IH 5400 no-till drill. After wheat harvest in July, he drills in a 16-species cover-crop blend he purchases from an area seed dealer. "There's usually some of that mixture that winter-kills, but usually I have a very thick cover to plant in the following spring. Sometimes, it's difficult to see the marker arm on the planter," he explains.
He terminates the cover crop with a glyphosate-Sharpen herbicide tank mix just before or just after planting, and sometimes plants in shoulder-high rye.
"Each year, the cover residue is different, depending upon which species thrived through the winter," Shover says. "But, we have no problem planting in even the thickest of the covers we've grown, including annual ryegrass." He uses a JD 1760 planter without row cleaners, and he removes the no-till coulters.
"We use heavy spring pressure and the double-disc openers, and have very good luck on stand establishment, even in our very heavy cover residue," he explains. "A lot of times, we found the coulters just pressed the thick covers into the trench and didn't cut through it -- particularly on the 16-way mix we use."
With the effects of no-till farming and the use of cover crops, Shover has eliminated one 20-gallon application of 28% UAN (urea-ammonium nitrate) without any yield drag on corn. He was putting on about 160 pounds of nitrogen per season and now uses about 115 pounds. "On some of my heavier ground, I think there are areas I can reduce my nitrogen application even further," he explains.
While Shover says the fertilizer reduction saved him $27 per acre, the cost of the cover-crop establishment was $30 per acre.
"It's still worth it," he says, "because I'm controlling soil erosion and slowly building organic matter across the farm, as well as reducing wear and tear on my equipment by reducing field trips."
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