Although he credits his time as a crop advisor for teaching him a lot about farming, Jeff Duling learned almost everything he knows about conservation practices from his dad, Bob, a true no-till pioneer.
“My dad’s been no-tilling since the 1970s,” Duling says. “On top of managing the farm he bought in 1964, he was also a truck driver. Whenever he traveled to Illinois or Iowa, he visited farmers to see what they were up to. When he saw them using the John Deere 750 no-till drill for the first time, he knew we had to have it.”
But Jeff and his three younger brothers went in the opposite direction when they took over for Bob in the 1990s.
“We were the kings of tillage,” Duling says. “My brothers and I went through a phase when we were ground pounders. Everybody was doing tillage in our area, but I could tell it wasn’t paying off. Dad would sit back and say to us, ‘You’re just starting over every year.’ So we started bringing no-till back into play, and it was working.”
Jeff eventually bought out his brothers and has been managing the 1,300-acre operation in Ottawa, Ohio, full time since retiring from his crop advising position 11 years ago. Bob still helps out, and his influence is felt across every acre.
“I’m fortunate to have my dad because he’s such an innovator and is always looking ahead,” Duling says. “He experimented all the time with equipment. He invented some stuff that others have copied over the years. He should’ve patented it, but he’s not the type of person who wants the recognition.”
Drain the Swamp
Duling no-tills approximately 600 acres of soybeans and 200 acres of wheat, and he strip-tills 500 acres of corn in the Great Black Swamp of northwest Ohio, what he calls one of the “biggest erosion areas in the world.”
Duling owns his own tile plow and uses it to install drainage tiles across his farm. He’s heavily involved in the H2Ohio program, a statewide initiative to solve water quality issues and reduce phosphorous runoff.
“There are three things I believe in — no-till, strip-till and drainage…”
“There are three things I believe in — no-till, strip-till and drainage,” Duling says. “Drainage tiles are a must in this area. When you get 3 inches of rain on our flat ground, it flows somewhere. When you drive around after a heavy rainfall and look at my fields, not many have water running off them. But when you look at conventionally tilled fields, the water runs off.”
The area was hit with 3 inches of rain almost immediately after Duling finished planting corn in the spring of 2022. The “act of God” forced him to replant almost everything.
“We’ll probably be harvesting the replanted corn as late as Christmas,” Duling says. “But on the fields with good cover crop establishment, I didn’t have to replant at all.”
Cover Crop Fanatics
Cover crops are a longtime staple in the Duling operation. Jeff’s dad started using them over 50 years ago.
“Of course, we didn’t have GPS back then. I remember as a kid getting lost in our field because the rye was so high,” Duling says.
Jeff carries on the tradition today and even kicked it up a notch. Stacks of cover crop seed bags fill almost every corner of his garage. His goal is to have every field covered year-round. Just like his dad before him, he’s found creative ways to get the job done efficiently.
“Fennig Equipment in Coldwater, Ohio, custom built a 17-row toolbar that follows my corn planter,” Duling says. “It seeds cover crops in between strips while also sidedressing UAN 28% with an EZ-Drop system at the same time.
Duling interseeds a mix of annual ryegrass (10 pounds), rape (2 pounds), sunn hemp (2 pounds) and radish (2 pounds) with the custom toolbar at V4-V5.
After wheat harvest in July, he uses a John Deere 30-foot air seeder to apply a mix of annual ryegrass, sunflower, crimson clover, radish, red clover and peas. When fall rolls around, he applies cereal rye to fields that aren’t covered.
Limiting his cover crop investment to no more than $20 per acre, Duling’s top priority is to scavenge nutrients. A recent experiment confirms he’s on the right track.
“We cut out a 2x2 square of waist-high cover crops and sent it to a lab,” Duling says. “I was floored by how many nutrients were there. Now I can see why some guys use cover crops to cut back on fertility.”
Immediately after planting corn and soybeans green, he terminates with herbicides using a John Deere 4730 sprayer. He also tried roller-crimping some fields, borrowing a 30-foot roller crimper from the Putnam County Soil and Water Conservation District.
“Roller-crimping worked out well for us,” Duling says. “I did 450 acres of roller crimping last year. But this year with thinner cover crop stands, I just couldn’t do it.”
Nutrient Management Plan
Duling Family Farms is home to a 2,200-head, contract wean-to-finish hog enterprise. Duling hires a local agronomist to perform grid samples, which determine the amount of hog manure he applies on fields going to corn.
“We test our manure twice a year,” he says. “Whatever the samples call for that’s what we’re going to follow. I hire an applicator to inject manure on fields that are lower in phosphate.”
Duling runs an 8-row Remlinger strip-till machine in the fall as soon as the soybeans are off the field. He plants corn at a rate of 36,000 no earlier than mid-April, using a John Deere 1770 16-row 30-inch planter with RTK guidance. He applies a 2x2 in-furrow starter fertilizer mix of 10-34-0 liquid ammonium polyphosphate (5 gallons) with sulfur and zinc and UAN 28% (15 gallons).
“I tried using only 28% as a starter fertilizer last year and ended up losing yield,” Duling says. “I decided to add 10-34-0, and the corn is in much better shape because of it. I need some phosphate next to the row with cool soils.”
He uses a John Deere 1790 planter to no-till soybeans in 15-inch rows at a variable rate of 120,000-200,000. Duling applies a foliar feed mix at postemergence followed by a second pass at R4 along with fungicide and insecticide. His mix includes 2 quarts of nitrogen, potassium, sulfur, manganese, zinc, boron and Triad.
Duling’s average corn yields are between 200-210 bushels per acre, with a high of 260. He shoots for soybean yields between 60-70 bushels per acre and wheat yields between 90-100.
He never stops looking for ways to improve his nutrient management plan. Duling uses test plots to assess what’s working and what’s not. Once he sees a return on investment in the third year of a program, he sticks with it.
Duling hopes to eventually pass the torch to his son, Nathan, who already is heavily involved in the operation.