Above photo: TOP TIPS. Left to right, no-tillers Jerry Ackermann, John Kemmeren and Eric Odberg each shared their top five tips for better fertility with the audience at the 24th National No-Tillage Conference in Indianapolis this past January.
Three no-tillers were honored for their responsible approach to their on-farm fertility practices at the 2016 National No-Tillage Conference in Indianapolis earlier this year.
Eric Odberg of Genesee, Idaho, John Kemmeren of Bainbridge, N.Y., and Jerry and Nancy Ackermann of Lakefield, Minn., make up the 8th class of Responsible Nutrient Management Practitioners, sponsored by No-Till Farmer and AgroLiquid.
Below is a synopsis of their advanced fertility programs.
Eric Odberg Genesee, Idaho
Eric Odberg knows well the challenges of thin soil atop rolling hillsides, which slope as steeply as 45-50% in the Palouse region.
No-tilling 2,200 acres of winter and spring wheat, malt barley, garbanzo beans, canola, millet, sunflowers, quinoa and flax in Genesee, Idaho, the area lacks summer rainfall — and when it does rain or snow, erosion occurs from too much water coming off the hillsides too fast.
Still, his wheat yields are usually above the county average of 85-90 bushels — his recent winter wheat hit 102 bushels per acre.
Keys to Odberg’s farming success in this challenging landscape include using no-till to prevent soil moisture evaporation, using a variety of rotational crops, soil and tissue sampling annually, yield mapping and variable-rate fertilization.
Most of Odberg’s farm drains into the Clearwater River, a salmon-bearing stream he says is crucial to spawning.
He finds the best way to avoid his fertilizer from entering the stream — while also saving money — is to avoid applying too much fertilizer in the first place.
That means soil and tissue testing in-season, creating variable rates for all fertilizer applications based on yield maps and infrared imaging, using auto-boom control, banding anhydrous ammonia and liquid fertilizers, and applying starter fertilizer as a liquid in-furrow.
Odberg took advantage of the NRCS’ Conservation Security Program for assistance in acquiring yield monitor and fertilizer rate controllers. He realizes a 7% savings with variable-rate fertilization and another 8% with auto-steer.
He also began a liming program 5 years ago, broadcasting 1 ton per acre each fall. It’s brought up soil pH levels and increased wheat yields by as much as 15 bushels per acre in wetter years. At a cost of $70 an acre, he limes only one field each fall, and hopes to variable rate his lime one day as well.
At the heart of Odberg’s fertility program is banding nutrients in a one-pass, no-till application with a John Deere 1895 air drill.
The drill is rigged with mid-row banders modified to a 19.6-inch diameter in three ranks on 20-inch centers. He seeds on 10-inch centers and fertilizer is placed 5 inches to the side and 3½-4 inches below the seed.
He finds starter fertilizer critical to getting all grain crops going when tests indicate fertilizer is needed and uses a formulation including 13.7% nitrogen (N), 27.5% phosphate, 2 pounds of zinc and humic acid. Magnesium is added, depending on soil testing, and 10% of the phosphate is Orthophosphate.
For his anhydrous ammonia application, an ammonia bottle rides on the tongue of the rig, giving the advantage of short coupling to allow better navigation of hillsides with less draft. Odberg adds weight to the drill and down pressure on the wings to keep the drill in the ground on the varying terrain.
Anhydrous ammonia is channeled through an Exactrix TAPPS pump that liquefies the gas from the tank at high pressure so it goes into the ground as a pure liquid rather than a gas. The drill is modified with Keeton seed firmers, and Thompson closing wheels follow the fertilizer injector to keep fertilizer in the soil.
“Most fertilizer systems reduce the pressure where anhydrous ammonia is applied, but we’re increasing it to get the liquid at the injection point,” Odberg says. “With environmental concerns, it’s especially important that the N stays where it’s placed.”
John Kemmeren Bainbridge, N.Y.
Reciprocation is what John Kemmeren’s fertility program is all about.
The 40-year no-tiller has created his crop and livestock operation to take full advantage of one component feeding off another. His system has translated to higher yields with lower out-of-pocket inputs, all while protecting land and water.
No-tilling 750 acres of corn, hay and pasture near Bainbridge, N.Y, Kemmeren also milks 100 cows and keeps 100 replacement heifers, as well as a few beef cattle. Three-fourths of his farm is classified as highly erodible land (HEL).
Corn yields average 190 bushels an acre, 25% higher than the county average of 140 bushels. His forage yields hit 6-7 tons of dry matter, compared to the county average of 3 tons. These yields come at the same time Kemmeren has cut his use of commercial fertilizer by 75%.
Kemmeren takes full advantage of his cow manure.
He knows his steep hills have to be protected against soil erosion, and no-till alone won’t always do the job. So he seeds cover crops and feeds those covers with manure. In turn, the cover crop holds the manure in place, as well as some N for the following crop.
He owns a manure tank and hires custom applicators to apply manure where it’s needed when he needs it, applying a standard rate of 4,000 gallons per acre.
Silage ground gets manure shortly after it’s seeded to cover crops, and then earlier harvested corn for grain is the next priority.
“We can put fertilizer on more acres at lighter rates this way. Our goal is to lightly manure every field every year, if we can.”
The manure and cover crops, combined with a 3-year rotation Kemmeren often uses, has almost eliminated the need for commercial N in corn. In his standard rotation, he’ll drill cereal rye and red clover the day after corn silage harvest, then apply manure.
The next June, he’ll harvest the cereal rye for straw and then no-till sudangrass and red clover into the cereal rye stubble. He’ll get two cuttings of sudangrass before it dies in the fall, which is when the red clover takes off.
Kemmeren cuts the red clover the next year as either silage or hay and no-tills corn into the clover the following spring. The red clover provides 200 pounds of N per acre, Kemmeren says.
He uses some N in a 200-pound-per-acre corn starter package of 10-18-14, applied dry in a 2-by-2-inch band with the planter. He also topdresses corn and grass, if needed, with urea mixed with ContaiN stabilizer, he says.
With his rotation, cover crops and topdressing, Kemmeren says he’s never seen his corn lack N, and he takes late-season corn stalk N tests to check.
Adamant on pH
Kemmeren soil tests every 3 years, taking samples on 2.5-acre grids on larger fields, and applies phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and micronutrients accordingly.
He’s a stickler on making sure soil pH is at the proper level to ensure optimum nutrient availability. The common pH in his area is 5.2, but Kemmeren likes it at 7 on alfalfa and 6.6 on grass fields.
He has his own 5-ton spreader and applies up to a half ton of lime on each field every other year.
“Lime really makes potash available,” he says. “We apply very little potash.”
The Ackermanns Lakefield, Minn.
Jerry and Nancy Ackermann have a goal of raising 200-bushel corn on 140 pounds of N. At 190-bushel yields, they’re pretty close to achieving it.
Strip-tilling corn and no-tilling soybeans and alfalfa on 1,200 acres, the Lakefield, Minn., couple has eclipsed county yield averages by 5 bushels for soybeans and 20 bushels for corn, while still lowering fertilizer inputs through calculated experimentation and a constant desire for improvement.
One of the first adjustments the Ackermanns made to their fertility program was with N. When they started strip-tilling corn, they put all N down as anhydrous ammonia in the fall, but after witnessing how much N a neighbor was losing by chisel plowing it in, Jerry decided to switch to urea.
The Ackermanns now either apply ESN, a controlled-release N product, or urea with Agrotain N stabilizer in the fall. They also apply their P and K in the fall and will put down a P stabilizer with it.
Adopting stabilizers has allowed the Ackermanns to time their fertilizer applications better, which has resulted in an overall reduction in the amount they apply.
They went from applying 100 pounds N in the strip down to 40 pounds. Each time they cut down on what they applied in the fall, they increased their sidedress applications a bit, which led to higher yields.
Currently, they sidedress 100 pounds of 32% liquid N around the V5 stage, depending on weather. With the 40 pounds applied in the fall, the Ackermanns are only applying 140 pounds N per acre total.
Jerry hears about no-tillers using higher rates of N and is wondering if he’s missing something. He’d like to do a test with a Hagie highboy, applying 30-40 pounds of N later in the season to see if it’s more profitable.
Get it Growing
In addition to the N applied in the fall and at sidedressing, the Ackermanns apply 10-34-0 as a starter in-furrow at planting. They also add Ascend, a growth regulator from WinField, which provides some micronutrients.
The Ackermanns also put down some zinc with their starter, a nutrient their crop consultant company, Extended Ag Services, recommended after taking tissue samples. Most field areas require 1 quart, but Jerry says some need up to 2.
The Ackermanns grid sample their soils every 3-4 years, and part of the reason for the frequent testing is due to having alfalfa in the rotation.
“You have to be careful with alfalfa. We have a tendency to be low on potash because it sucks a lot of it out of the soil,” Jerry says.
While alfalfa does impact their potash levels, having it in rotation has positively impacted their fertilizer program overall, Jerry says. If they have a decent stand of alfalfa, he can terminate it in the fall and no-till corn into it with just starter fertilizer, and still expect 200-bushel corn yields.
“Soybeans do better the following year, and when it goes back to corn we expect good yields too, and can cut back on fertilizer a little bit,” Jerry says. “I make most of my money on alfalfa when I rotate out of it, because of virtually no fertilizer costs and I still get good yields.”