Joe Nester, an independent crop consultant from northwest Ohio, speaks to farmers at Starkey Farms in Brownsburg, Ind., during the third annual no-till planter clinic. Featured topics included soil and nutrient health and a farmer panel discussion about no-till, strip till and no-till planter attachments.
Joe Nester, an independent crop consultant from northwest Ohio, speaks to farmers at Starkey Farms in Brownsburg, Ind., during the third annual no-till planter clinic. Featured topics included soil and nutrient health and a farmer panel discussion about no-till, strip till and no-till planter attachments.

BROWNSBURG, Ind. — No-till farming has really caught on in Indiana, and farmers are realizing that many of the tools they need to be great at their craft already exist in the soil.

“Soil, water and air have more effect on your fields than nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus ever will,” said Joe Nester, an independent crop consultant from northwest Ohio who spoke at the third-annual no-till planter clinic at Starkey Farms in Brownsburg.

He challenged farmers to shift from the mindset that all will be well on their farm as long pH, P and K are at adequate levels and they apply the amount of nitrogen they think they need on their soil.

Farmers may have been given the impression that if they spend money on fertilizer, they are going to get a return on it, he said.

“As yields go up, we’re thinking we need to buy more and apply more fertilizer. N, P and K are easy things to handle and are almost status symbols, giving you the feeling that you’ve got the year covered,” Nester said. “We’ve done a good job with fertilizer over the years. Soil health is where the problem is.”

With the vast improvements in herbicide and herbicide tolerance in corn, improved planting equipment and farm technology has come the recognition of the destruction of soil due to abrasive field practices that were encouraged for many years, he acknowledged.

By zeroing in on management control of their fields using variable-rate technology and aerial and satellite imagery, farmers can reduce their input costs and alleviate the environmental impact of years of intensive, chemical-based farming, he said.

Important for them to note is that nutrient requirements are not the same for all farm systems. Some types of soils are in much better condition than others, Nester said.

“Efficiency on your farm equals root mass minus stress accumulation — that is, from water, lack of air, herbicide effect, disease, insect, heat and cold, compaction and stand variation,” he said. “A good database for soil analysis is very important.”

Yield advantages can depend on soil type, which can be relative to exchange capacity on the farm, derived from soil sampling.

A two-acre zone today yielding 50 bushel-per-acre corn at $6 a bushel can mean a $300-per-acre difference, he said.

In turn, it costs a farmer about a nickel per bushel for every year of soil sample missed, Nester added.

Water infiltration and aeration in the soil also are very important. Half the soil matter should be open pore space, the crop expert said.

This goal cannot be attained through maximum tillage, and tiling on farms can pull more air into the soil than tillage can, Nester said.

These subtle perks of being a no-till farmer often go as unappreciated as calcium, magnesium and other elements integral to soil health, he said. These elements act as strong magnets to remove hydrogen from the soil — important to atrazine management since the chemical is hydrolized, he said.

The soil’s pH level also can make or break a successful elemental soil environment. Good bacteria and soil organisms flourish at a pH level ranging from 2 to 6.8 pH on a zero to 14 scale, he said.

Nester recommended radishes as superior scavengers of potassium, and the cover crop has demonstrated good nutrient sequestration following wheat.

Radishes planted at an 8- to 10-pound rate, mixed with manure and applied with AerWay can mean a better bang for your buck, too.

Farmers may choose to mix herbicide into their cover crop. This involves adaptive management and configuring rates for their farm.

Nester said he hopes the proactive measures farmers are taking through no-till farming, cover crops and nutrient management will lead to greater flexibility at the regulatory level.

Other agricultural activities, such as tiling, however, already are being regulated in the western Lake Erie basin, and farmers will increasingly be challenged to keep track of the soil health initiatives they are implementing on their farm, Nester said.

“Get on the other side of the fence and ask how to make an opportunity out of this,” he said.