Management is key to a successful conservation farming operation

By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader, a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean check-off

It is no surprise that effective management is a key to running a successful farming operation. The more enterprises the farm has, the more important the management becomes. The is especially the case when the farm is comprised of 4,200 acres of cropland (corn and soybeans), a 4,500 head dairy partnership, a grain elevator, seed dealership, an agronomy retail operation with full-service chemical and fertilizer application, along with poultry litter, and an excavating company. VanTilburg Farms, located in Mercer County, is a family farm that values good stewardship of their resources and utilizes cover crops and no-till on the vast majority of their acres.

VanTilburg Farms manages the water in their fields with systematic tile drainage systems that have water control structures on the outlets. On some acres they also have center pivot irrigation systems. “We have a lot of clay based soils in west central Ohio, and drainage can be an issue. The majority of our fields are systematically tiled and we have water control structures to help maximize our efficiency with the water,” said Luke VanTilburg. “We also have six irrigation center pivots across the farm. Three pivots are fed by wells and retention ponds, and three pivots are tied to the dairy and we irrigate the water from the last phase of the manure treatment system.”

The VanTilburgs observed crop yield increases from irrigation prior to the establishment of the dairy operation. “We started with three irrigation pivots fed by wells and ponds prior to the start of the dairy,” said Luke VanTilburg. “We saw the value of getting the water on the crop at key times, even in an otherwise wet summer. We installed our first pivot irrigation 6 or 7 years ago, and two years later added another, and the next year added another, and then when the dairy was built in 2018 we added three more.”

Water management is a layer of management that is critical to enhance crop production and conserve resources. “We have a series of moisture sensors tied to the center pivot irrigation system that monitors soil moisture at various depths from 4” to 36” at every 4 inchs depth,” said Luke VanTilburg. “The sensors have cell modems on them, and we can monitor and graph changes in the soil moisture level as the season goes on and the crop needs change based on the stage of plant development. This system allows us to apply water as the crop needs it.”

VanTilburg Farms have fields located in both the the Maumee River Watershed, which flows into the Western Lake Erie Basin, and also fields in the Grand Lake St. Mary’s Watershed, which flows into Grand Lake St. Mary’s. Both of these watersheds have gained national attention when it comes to water quality issues and managing nutrients.

VanTilburgs grid test soils in the spring and make any needed nutrient applications in the summer. They utilize poultry litter and livestock manure on the fields that have need. They also apply cover crops in the summer with a modified high-boy walker sprayer converted to be a cover crop inter-seeder.

Manging cover crops is a learning process. “We started out with a single cover crop through a government program early on,” said Matt VanTilburg. “It was a good learning opportunity and opened our eyes to the potential benefits. From there we went and listened to a couple programs with speakers that promoted cover crops and learned more from some of the guys that had more experience with them. Now we plant almost all our acres with cover crops. Over 95% of our acres have cover crops on them.”

Farmers should consider what their goal is before planting cover crops. “We tell guys to consider all the factors that planting cover crops can encompass,” said Matt VanTilburg. “When we work with other farmers interested in planting cover crops, we ask a series of questions. What is their reason or purpose for planting cover crops? How are they going to seed it? What is the next grain crop going to be? What is their experience and comfort level with different cover crops? Are they planning to plant green? A guy can start with oats and oil seed radish which will winterkill. If they are already no-tilling, it will not change their system much. If they plan to plant green, then that will change their system more. It can start as simple as blending a cover crop with the fertilizer they apply in the fall and then incorporating it.” The most effective establishment method the VanTilburg’s have found is using a drill. “You can reduce your seeding rates down, and still get a good stand,” said Matt VanTilburg. “The earlier you can plant, the more species options there are that can be incorporated into a cover crop mix. A lot of the success in establishing a cover crops is a timing issue and how early you can plant. We have planted as many as a 15-way mix. That was planted in early August. The later you go, the fewer options there are.”

When it comes to terminating a cover crop, there are management considerations. “Farmers have options when it comes to terminating cover crops,” said Matt VanTilburg. “Chemical control is the most widely used option when terminating the cover crop in the spring. Some will wait for the cover crop to get bigger and use a roller crimper depending on what species are in the mix. Some farmers elect to plant green, and then terminate after planting. It all depends on the comfort level and experience for each farmer. Management is a key. Everyone should start small and take baby steps.”

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