Listen to the Land - 7

A Family Tradition

John Young stands with a historical marker highlighting his family-farm's distinction of being an early no-till adopter. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Charles Johnson)

Step into this field outside Herndon, Kentucky, and touch a bit of agricultural history. One year, it may be planted in soybeans, the next year in corn. One thing, though, is certain: It will always be no-tilled.

It's been that way since 1962, when it was among the nation's first commercial farm fields planted in that then-controversial way. Harry Young Jr., an innovative farmer looking for ways to farm more efficiently, cobbled together a no-till planter out of an Allis-Chalmers two-row rig and tried something brand new on about 7/10th of an acre.

A historical marker on the roadside now commemorates his feat. However, this farm is anything but stuck in the past. Today, the operation is comprised of 4,000 acres of rented and owned land operated by John and Alexander Young, Harry's son and grandson.

Just like Harry, the two understand that moving ahead with new agronomic ideas is critical to staying in business.

John, who was 11 years old when his father tried no-till, said it's important to keep looking for ways to improve. That's just good business as well as family tradition.

NO-TILL MISSION

"My grandfather had a mission. He was enough of a conservationist to see the benefits of no-till. When he started out, he was mainly interested in stopping erosion. It doesn't take long to erode a field in western Kentucky," Alexander said. "Then, it became apparent that no-till could save a lot of diesel and manpower."

Harry got the urge to try no-till when Extension agent Reeves Davie took a group of farmers to see University of Illinois agronomist George McKibben's work at Dixon Springs. Harry, who worked in Kentucky Extension eight years prior to farming full-time, came home prepared to give it a try. Thanks to herbicides like atrazine and 2,4-D, he thought he could control weeds in corn, so that gave him confidence.

The technique worked well enough to try it again on more acres. Word spread. Tour groups started rolling onto the Young farm. Harry became a no-till evangelist, speaking at numerous farmer gatherings. His friend, Shirley Phillips, a Kentucky Extension agent who went on to become a state row-crop specialist, became enthused, too, and the two worked in tandem talking up no-till. In 1973, they coauthored a textbook about no-till farming.

As with every new idea, there were people who didn't see the advantages of no-till.

"Dad kept going forward with it," John said. "When he thought he had a good idea, he wouldn't drop it easily. He thought it would be advantageous for everyday farmers."

Good thing he had that stubborn streak. In 2012, Lloyd Murdock, Kentucky Extension soils specialist, called no-till one of the five top agricultural advances of the past century.

ORGANIC MATTER MATTERS

The Young farm continues to use technology to stay economically sustainable. Building soil remains the heart of their program.

"As we have continued with no-till, soil organic matter continues to build. We started intensive soil-sampling and recordkeeping in 2008 and have been able to plot a steady increase in organic matter," Alexander said.

"But 10 years is a very limited data set for soil," he continued. "Organic matter has definitely increased, though. We know it was roughly 1.5% when my dad started farming. Now, it's up to about 3 to 3.5%."

Their soil varies across the farm from thin, rocky hills to rich bottomland. Average it all, though, and soil quality continues to improve, according to their data.

"Our biggest limiting factor here is water-holding capacity. Therefore, rainfall and irrigation are crucial," Alexander said. "The great thing about higher organic matter is that fields are better able to weather drought. The corn and soybeans have better access to moisture. There are lots of benefits."

They were quick to use variable-rate technology because of their varying soil types. "Variable-rate technology was made for farms like ours," Alexander explained. "It helps us a lot. There can be quite a difference in soil and topography within 200 feet."

They soil-sample in zones then put those recommendations to work across their fields. "Corn is planted on variable-rate prescriptions based on topography and how steep the ground is, based on soil type," Alexander said. "Nutrients get applied using variable-rate, too."

EARLY ADOPTERS

Fifty-six years after Harry Young Jr. tried no-till, his son and grandson remain curious and up-to-date on technology. "My dad has always been a proponent of new technology. So was his dad," Alexander said.

As a teenager, Alexander worked part-time doing IT (information technology) for a hospital. He further honed his computer skills in college, majoring in agricultural science at Murray State University. While working on his agricultural economics and statistics master's degree at the University of Tennessee, he learned GIS (geographic information systems) technology, which is applied on the farm.

"I always wanted to come back to farm and rented farmland when I was still in school," Alexander said. "Family is important to us, and keeping this farm viable and productive for future generations is important. We treat rented land the same as we do our owned land."

Now 36, one of five siblings including a brother with a Ph.D. in ag economics from Purdue University, Alexander expects to raise his own family right here. He doesn't expect huge financial rewards and even drives a pickup truck with nearly 500,000 miles on it.

A sixth-generation farmer in Christian County, where the family first grew crops in the 1830s, Alexander said the tradition may carry on right within his own household. He and his wife are raising four children.

That's the real reward for Alexander. Being on a farm that's part of agricultural history is nice, but staying current with technology to carry it forward for future generations is even better.

(ES/SK )