HANOVER, Pa. – Non-GMO Indiana farmer Cameron Mills and other speakers offered tips on improving soil health and profitability Jan. 31 at the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance winter meeting.
The one-day event in Adams County, which was repeated two days later in western Pennsylvania, covered a lot of ground. But here are three noteworthy messages to take home.
Maximize dollars, not bushels
In other words, the largest production volume isn’t always the most profitable.
In fact, Mills tried an interseeding strategy, even though he knew it would reduce his cash crop yield. He hoped to recoup this income through cattle grazing on the cover crops he had sown.
“Does the banker take Scheffel? The last time I checked, the banker took dollars,” Mills said.
He grows wheat for the same reason. The small grain is generally not a convincing cash crop in his area, but after the wheat is harvested in the summer, Mills plants a warm-season cover crop mix for grazing.
Its mix of 19 species feeds farm animals and contributes to the diversity of crop rotation. He couldn’t plant most of these species after corn because it would be too late in the season.
“If you need more fodder, this is a sizefeed cattle,” he said.
Mills, of course, has yield targets, even for its triticale cover crop.
But that’s because it’s trying to go beyond the commodity markets and fetch higher prices where it can. He grows triticale as a cover crop, and it’s one of his best-yielding crops.
“That looks silly, doesn’t it? Because corn is king; 225 bushels of corn should be king. Well, it’s probably gross, but not net,” Mills said.
Mills’ other best-yielding crop is another surprise.
Buckwheat is good because it is ready to harvest in about 60 days. Mills sells most of its harvest for seed for cover crops, but it grinds the rest and markets it directly as flour. Buckwheat is used in pancakes and other foods and is gluten free.
Mills also markets its beef, pork and chicken directly.
Reconsider seed treatments
Mills showed photos of a field where a farmer he knew had run out of beans mid-plant. The farmer could get more of the same variety to finish, but he couldn’t get treated beans.
Amazingly, snails devastated the treated crop so thoroughly that the farmer had to replant, leaving the untreated beans in the same field largely unharmed.
Mills attributed this to the neonicotinoid seed treatments killing beneficial insects, a concern scientists have also raised.
Mills said some researchers found traces of neonics in the soil five years after a farmer stopped using it, and he didn’t want such long-lasting after-effects.
Mills no longer uses seed treatments on any of his crops and has not had any problems with snails.
“When we removed all of our seed treatments, our soils came alive,” Mills said.
To reduce the risk of a pest disaster, he advises other farmers to avoid seed treatments and not apply them all at once on their fields.
Acquiring raw soybeans is easy, at least in Mills’ situation. He found non-GMO varieties that aren’t patented, so he saves the seed from those crops for the following year.
It’s a bit harder to get raw corn. Mills has worked successfully with small seed companies, although in some cases he had to push for what he wanted. He was able to order untreated seed from Pioneer before December 1st at least.
“It’s all about working with your dealers and whoever you’re working with,” Mills said. “It’s not difficult, but it adds another layer of management.”
Mills also wonders about the potential of neonicotinoids, and pesticides in general, to harm human health.
Farmers don’t always wear gloves, long sleeves and respirators when handling treated seed, and Mills was covered in chemical-laden dust while loading treated seed into the planter. Those moments made him pause.
A 2017 research report from George Washington University found that more research is needed to understand its effects on human health.
Know how to lose nitrogen
Ideally, nitrogen leaves the soil when it is taken up by the plant. However, the nutrient can also be lost through erosion, immobilization in residues, leaching and volatilization.
The extent of loss from these trails will vary each year depending on weather conditions.
Crop consultant Eric Rosenbaum usually focuses on losses to the atmosphere because Pennsylvania farmers apply a lot of manure and fertilizer to the surface.
The Penn State Agronomy Guide provides charts showing how much nitrogen is lost depending on how long the farmer waits to incorporate and whether a cover crop is present.
But in an Adams County project last year, Rosenbaum found that farmers were losing 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre to leaching — about four times the losses from volatilization — when not using cover crops.
The leaching occurred in March and April, too early to be from new fertilizer applications. So the losses came from nitrogen that was already in the soil.
“A cover crop will fix a lot of that, and it actually did,” Rosenbaum said.