By Matt Reese
In recent years Nathan Brause re-learned some lessons and quit tillage cold turkey.
“My grandpa, Glenn Brause, no-tilled corn into rye on this farm in the 70s. I remember that. Everyone else was plowing and I thought he was crazy,” said Nathan Brause, who was recently named the No-Till Farmer of the Year by the Ohio No-Till Council. “They had it figured out back then and it took me 20 or 30 years to figure it out again.”
When Nathan took over the gently rolling Sunny Slopes Farm in Crawford County that his grandpa had purchased in the 1920s he invested heavily in tillage.
“We were doing soil samples one day and got caught in the rain. We watched the rain just run off. I thought I had to start tilling again. We used to moldboard plow back in the 80s. Then I started deep ripping. Then we got a chisel plow. We just kept going deeper. I got tired of deep ripping and chisel plowing, Every time you’d turn around you’d need a deeper plow,” he said. “In the 90s we worked with strip-till and then variable rate fertilizer. I started looking at cover crops. We were tiling a farm in ‘06. We put rye in. It took us all winter to tile. That spring we came back in to finish and there were roots down there in the bottom of the tile. I thought, ‘That is the best tillage tool I have ever seen.’ I was sold right there. We did it on 100 acres that next year and by ‘08 we were putting cover crops on everything. We were chisel-plowing corn stalks and strip-tilling then but it didn’t take long before I sold the field cultivators, disks, rolling baskets and everything. I couldn’t totally quit. I bought a Joker disc, but I didn’t use it enough to justify it so I finally sold it. I bought some tillage equipment since then because of putting in waterways and tiling, but I sure as heck don’t want to use it any more than I have to. Tillage is an endless progression. Just look at how much bigger tillage equipment has gotten over the years.”
Ultimately, though, Brause found that grandpa had it right back in the 1970s with the cover crops. He finally combined no-till with cover crops four years ago and has been really impressed with the results.
“We used to do no-till without cover crops years ago and it didn’t work,” he said. “You need to understand cover crop before going to no-till. That is what convinced me — the living roots. We tried with just rye and I liked it. It was really nice. People told me I couldn’t do rye and corn, but I thought I could. We started with strip-till and tried plots with continuous no-till corn with rye as a cover crop for five years straight. It worked. We actually had really good yields. The sixth year we put it into soybeans and those were the best yielding soybeans we had that year. We had built a lot of biomass with the corn and rye in those five years.”
More recently, Brause planted wheat for the first time in many years.
“Bret Margraf (with the Seneca Soil and Water Conservation District) has been after me to plant wheat. Wheat hasn’t been on the farm for a while now. We used to grow wheat with corn and soy. We did inter-seeded beans but then it got to be a logistics mess with just me working here,” Brause said. “I planted wheat for the first time in a while this fall. This year really turned it around for me. Now looking at these cover crops I can plant after wheat gets me all excited. Wheat breaks up my load some. Then I am planning for an at least 12-way cover crop mix after it that will cost around $35 to $40 an acre. You need diversity out there in the fields. You cannot get a good enough consistent cover crop stand on every farm with just a corn and bean rotation. With just corn and beans, only 30% of my farm looked good with the cover crops.”
Brause now sees the farm as a system where wheat can be a very nice fit.
“There is always an opportunity to get a pretty decent price out of the wheat somewhere over a 2-year span. You have to make sure you do a good job marketing the wheat. There is also a strong straw market. Removing that residue of the straw used to bother me, but now I don’t feel like it is a big deal if you can follow the wheat with a good mix of cover crops,” he said. “I did the math and, with strong straw prices, wheat is actually better than soybeans. There is enough money to cover the cover crop seeds and the manure application of chicken litter and you’re still putting money in your pocket. We can bale the straw and get the cover crop planted by the first of August and then you have time to spread manure.”
Manure has become an important part of the nutrient mix on the farm and is a tool for helping to build organic matter in combination with the no-till and cover crops.
“We put 6 gallons of 3-18-18 in the row at planting and 12 gallons of 28% 2X2 for the corn. We haven’t put any dry fertilizer on in these fields. We have been Y-dropping too because I like to spoon feed the corn. We use 12 gallons each time and last year we did it twice, so total N was 106 to 120 pounds, not including the poultry manure,” Brause said. “We may also add some nitrogen with the cover crops. We use a ton per acre of layer manure that is more or less composted, though we don’t use it on every acre. We try to put the manure on into a living cover heading into corn in the spring. I don’t want to lose those nutrients. We haven’t spread any in the fall up until recently when we’ve had cover crop mixes growing in the fields.”
There are challenges with the cover crops and one of the most significant is getting them established.
“We have been very successful in getting all of our acres covered up until this last year. Now with adding wheat I feel like we can do even better than we have been,” Brause said. “We’ve used an airplane and found that wasn’t good enough. I have hired someone to do it with a highboy and that worked. Now we just drill if we can, or we can spread it with a seeder and use a rolling basket.”
After quitting cold turkey, Brause has been really impressed with the results in his fields.
“At first, I thought it would never work. Then it started working. The biggest benefit I see without tillage is the soil tilth is better. We have a farm we’ve been farming for four years now. It is 500 acres and it was hard as concrete when we started. We put rye in and corn into the standing rye. We put cover in behind that and then beans and then corn,” he said. “It is a huge difference already and that is just in four seasons. Now that farm is the poster child of a field that you’d really want. We don’t put the inputs on that farm anymore because it doesn’t need it. We use less chemical, less nutrient, and it is very uniform and looks good. It is very consistent. The differences are even bigger in the fields that are further along.”
This spring was a real test across all of the farm’s acres with the extended wet conditions.
“The neighbors were mudding corn in and ours was going in just fine. The planting went pretty well this spring. We tried to wait until everything was fit. We got 60% of the corn planted and the rest was put to sorghum sudangrass,” Brause said. “I felt pretty good about it because I got all of the beans planted and the corn was planted properly. This year was a learning curve. Trying to deal with all the water is the challenge. We have to get it through our heads that this could be the norm in the future. Four of the last five years have been in the top 10 wettest on record.”
While it took a couple of decades, farming with no-till and cover crops it has allowed Brause to pick up where his grandfather left off.
“Like any farmer, I want to leave this farm better than I found it,” he said. “It is already there.”