By Matt Reese
Tim Norris went from farmer, to tech guy, back to farmer, and now on to a new, unexpected title: Outstanding No-Till Farmer.
At the December Ohio No-Till Council Conference, Norris was recognized for his new title earned through his work with his successful blend of no-till, cover crops and technology on his Knox County farm.
“We farm 800 acres of our own corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat and then we do about another 900 of custom planting and harvesting for neighbors. I grew up across the river on the farm that my dad had and it was a small corn, soybean, wheat, and oats farm — very diversified. And then we had a lot of cattle with some hogs, chickens, and sheep as well. By the time I was 18, I pretty much decided I wanted a grain farm. So my aunt’s farm, which was right across the Kokosing River, is where I started to grain farm in 1984,” Norris said. “We no-tilled some right off the bat, but most of it was conventional. Back then we raised a lot of popcorn, a little bit of field corn, soybeans, and some wheat. I think a pivotal point in my farming career was when I realized I knew the mechanics of farming, but I didn’t know the agronomics of it. So that first attempt at farming actually failed.”
In 1992, the farm equipment was sold to pay the bills and Norris went to work at nearby Mt. Vernon Farmers Exchange.
“At that point, I was sent to crop development school. That’s where I first heard about grid soil sampling,” Norris said. “I was in Champaign County, Ill. and they were talking about the variation within the soil and how they were able to apply nutrients differently to that and I thought, ‘Man if this can work where there’s two soil types in a 100-acre field, imagine what it would do for Knox County where there’s maybe six or eight soil types in a 20-acre field. From that point on, precision ag was my passion.”
That passion led to Norris founding Ag Info Tech in 2004, a precision ag dealer focused on helping customers be more efficient, accurate and profitable through reliable technology products and service. Initially based on the home farm in Gambier, the business quickly outgrew that location and ended up in Fredericktown. Norris sold the last portion of the business in early 2019 to shift his focus back to full time farming.
“I started farming again in 1999 and started to do as much no-till as I possibly could. Up until 2 years ago, I had a full-time job, so the farming was there basically to help promote my agricultural technology company. I farmed because I loved it, but also to implement and utilize some of the practices and the tools that we were selling at Ag Info Tech. Now that I’m no longer there, my focus is on the farm and we’re trying to grow that and make it make it profitable,” Norris said. “I’d ideally like to cut back from the 1,600 to 1,700 acres that we’re planting now to just doing about 1,200 of my own acres and to do a better job on that 1,200. No-till and cover crops, I think, play a key role in that.”
His passion for precision ag and technology is still at work on the farm as well.
“RTK and auto steer was one of the biggest things that helped us, especially early on with no-till. One of the big problems we had was how to deal with the trash on the corn stalks. I tried several different things from disking them to working them with a vertical tillage tool to bush-hogging them. It all kind of left the stalks mobile and they were susceptible to loss from either wind or from erosion,” Norris said. “When we had RTK, we were doing a lot of no-till planting with the corn. We used a 12-row planter, coming back the next year with the same planter, only configured as a 12/23 for soybeans, just moved 7.5-inches off the row. Those stalks were no longer a problem and that solved one of the big issues that I had with no-tilling soybeans into corn stubble.”
And, the initial appeal of grid soil sampling still holds true for Norris, and he has also implemented additional precision technology into his operation to enhance profitability.
“We’re still very heavily involved with grid soil sampling. I do all my own grid samples on my farm and do a few for some of the neighbors that we’ve farmed the ground for as well. We have our own variable rate spreader. The proper balance of fertility is key. If you don’t have your fertility in the right state then it’s going to be hard to implement no-till successfully,” he said. “We do variable rate seeding on the corn planter as well and then I think one of the biggest technology pieces that we’ve implemented is the hydraulic downforce. That has really helped us no-till and do a great job of not over compacting but still getting the right seed placement, the right depth and consistent depth, which is so important with no-till.”
The consistency and precision are particularly important in the inconsistent fields of Knox County.
“We have a lot of roll in Knox County with clay soils that are mixed in with a lot of sand in the river bottoms. I have one field that we go from a 1.5% organic matter on one end to 4% at the other end of it, so we treat that 1.5% organic matter a lot different than we do that 4%,” he said. “With variable rate technology, we can drop the population down to 26,000 there and we’re adding pressure to the row unit. In the darker, more mellow soil, we are dropping up to 36,000 seeds and taking weight off of the row unit. It’s helping us a bunch. Without that technology, it’d be pretty much impossible on a 16-row planter.”
The way Norris farms today is also important for the Kokosing River running through his land.
“We have about two-thirds of a mile of river frontage on the Kokosing River, which has been deemed one of Ohio’s scenic rivers. I farm a little over 2 two miles of it with rented ground. On every acre that we farm that faces a river we have 120-foot setback to help protect the integrity of that riverbank,” Norris said. “Where I have no-tilled for a few years it just seems like that water infiltrates and that heavy rain doesn’t cause an issue nearly as long on those fields as it does where you have conventional tillage. And I know that over the next few years that farm is going to start to mellow out. The water’s going to infiltrate and I think it’ll be in a lot better soil health condition than what it is right now.”
The combination of technology, management, no-till, and cover crops has proven results on the farm. Norris has started experimenting with multi-species cover crop mixes to continue to improve soil health and add value to the operation.
“We did quite a bit with rye and we had a lot of insect problems with it. We’ve moved away from that a little bit and we’re starting to look at a multi-species cover crop mix. I’m really interested in trying to find a way to actually harvest some of that cover crop to help pay for the cost of that cover crop seed. This year one of the things we did after wheat was plant 40 acres of an 8-way mix and we put sunflowers in there. We were hoping to get to harvest the sunflowers, but there really weren’t enough. We planted it with a drill last year and I think if we do it with a corn planter next year will be able to actually harvest them,” Norris said. “I feel one of the values we hope to gain from mixes is getting the extra nitrogen for the corn crop the next year. We’re wanting to cut our nitrogen back from around 180 units to about 120 units based on the cover crop mix that we have after wheat. To me that’s a huge value, especially with the nitrogen prices where they are today. No-till definitely reduces your fuel bill a lot and herbicides really aren’t that much more expensive to add a burndown in versus a conventional tillage pass. It really has helped with the expenses, especially when you don’t have to have a larger tractor and you don’t have to have that tillage tool you’re constantly wearing out like a chisel plow or disc blades on a disc or bearings on your vertical tillage tool. There’s just a tremendous savings there, not to mention the labor savings for no-till.”