How conservation pays long-term | Successful Farming

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“Conservation costs too much? I don’t agree with that,” says Ryan Batts, corn and soybean farmer and specialist at the University of Illinois Extension.

On his farm in central Indiana, thanks to a variety of soil health and conservation practices implemented over the years, he has seen his input costs lower, equipment and labor costs reduced, and increased yields, especially in stressful weather.

“It’s hard to value the soil health component but I can see faster returns from weed control, grazing covers, relieving soil compaction, and less erosion,” he says.

In an Illinois Sustainable Ag Partnership webinar this week, he shares the evolution of his crop management and how he has improved the bottom-line.

Long-term goals

Batts transitioned his farmland to no-till in the 1990s and introduced cover crops in the 2000s. Even though it was a hard sell to him at first, knowing his land was highly erodible sped up his decision to commit and start the work.

“We wanted to start experimenting with soil health and conservation practices before regulations on erosion and water quality are in place,” he says. “I wanted to figure it out before I’m told how to farm.”

His goals include:

  • Improving soil health organic matter and nutrient availability
  • Improving soil structure
  • Holding onto nutrients 
  • Reducing erosion
  • Using less chemicals and someday, less fertilizer
  • Reducing labor and post-harvest work

Since adopting no-till, Batts has eliminated equipment and now only uses two tractors and planters – and only in rare cases is the tillage equipment put to use.

He has seen less erosion on his farm ground and less compaction, meaning he can get out into the fields to work when conditions are less-than-ideal.

“With no-till, we feel like we’re really protecting our soil and now, by incorporating cover crops, we have seen even more benefits. Cover crops were easier to implement too because we already had no-till management in place,” Batts says.

Batts drills cover crops and incorporates them after harvest when possible. He will spread cover crop seed with fertilizer if the conditions aren’t right for drilling. Typically, he will plant a mix ahead of corn and cereal rye ahead of soybeans.

“Cereal rye is an easy program to start with and easy to justify financially,” Batt says. “We’ve seen less weed pressure over the years and have lowered our chemical usage. I reallocate the money from the chemical program to the cover crop program.”

Results and future plans

Over the years, the farm has maintained good yields due to the organic matter levels, drainage, and conservation practices.

Batts says his corn yields are 20+ bushels per acre above the county averages and soybean yields are 5+ over the county averages.

“In the early years planting cover crops, we weren’t as consistent planting the same covers year in and out on our farms so it’s hard to track concrete numbers. But, our organic matter is slowly increasing on farms with continuous cover crops. We definitely haven’t seen any yield drags, so there’s no reason to walk away from the program,” he says.”

In 2019, an extremely wet year for central Indiana, Batts took prevented planting and put cover crops on every acre instead of repeated tillage and spraying. “We saw tremendous amounts of growth and the number of insects and wildlife was incredible. On those farms in the following two years, we had extremely good yields. The long-term cover crop growth provided really good benefits to us.”

With all of these soil health practices in place, Batts has moved away from traits, especially on corn. That has lowered his seed costs. He also does not use insecticide and avoids fungicide unless absolutely necessary. The crops are more resilient, especially against heat and drought stress.

Batts’ soil health journey isn’t over. He seeks to continue improving the soil.

“We want to do additional soil testing and tissue testing. We’re looking at a roller crimper for cover crop termination as it could reduce costs, allow us to cut chemicals, and we’ll see better weed control,” he says.

He is also looking into a move to non-GMO crops to capture premiums and lower costs further to benefit the bottom line.

“In the end, it’s hard to put a dollar amount on it, but our soil improvements with the increased organic matter, more nutrients and water holding capacity, reduced erosion, and improved soil structure are true successes.”

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