MACOMB, Ill. — Just like their fellow farmers in McDonough County, across the state and nation, it’s been a year of challenges for the Western Illinois University Allison Organic Research Farm.
“Basically we’ve had much less interaction with the public,” said Andy Clayton, farm manager at the Allison Farm.
While that might not sound like a big deal, public interaction is how Clayton and Joel Gruver, director of the WIU Organic Research Program, share their research and results.
Typically, the farm hosts a large field day event in August along with twilight field tours throughout the summer. This year, due to the pandemic, that didn’t happen.
Instead, Clayton and Gruver have been taking small groups and individuals on tours by request.
“We have been giving individual tours. We are supposed to keep our numbers to 10 or less, and we haven’t had a big tour,” Clayton said.
But the research itself continues, with some adjustments.
Labor is one of those. The division of labor on the farm has been adjusted due fewer student workers and adjustments for the students who did work on the farm this summer.
“We didn’t do our normal process of recruiting student workers. We ended up with having two students working on the farm, but it wasn’t quite the normal process, so the student workers did less work on the farm,” Clayton said.
That means that Gruver and Clayton have juggled the various farm tasks between them.
“If there’s a several-hours-long task that needs to be done, it doesn’t make sense for Andy to come from Rushville, where he lives, to do it. So, he has been doing more office work and less field work this summer. All of the critical work, like planting and cultivation, Andy has done this season, but some things, like stalk chopping, I did,” Gruver said.
While the Allison Farm employs students in lesser numbers than the University Farm, students still make up an important part of the summer workforce.
“We see student labor as having two missions. One is to help us get the work done, but the other is to provide an education,” Gruver said.
In recent years, Gruver has tried to focus on getting agriculture education majors as student workers on the Allison Farm. That serves a purpose now and, hopefully, in the future.
“Our hope is when they are teaching students, they will be able to provide a balanced discussion of organics. They will have practical hands-on experience,” Gruver said.
So, what have Gruver, Clayton and those student workers been doing this summer? Here’s a brief look at some of the projects.
The idea of a “solar corridor” isn’t new, and other farms are doing it in different iterations. The concept involves leaving a wide row open in a field so that the entire field gets as much sunlight as the outside rows.
“What you see is three rows of corn packed into two. The number of plants that would have been in three rows got packed into two rows. We set the planter for 45,000. Because we were only having two rows out of three, that’s equivalent to 30,000 per acre,” Gruver said.
There are other benefits to the solar corridor.
“When your plants are closer together, weed control is easier. We were also able to index our nitrogen, we sidedressed nitrogen and we just dropped it in between the two corn rows,” Gruver said.
The corridor is one 60-inch-wide row. The project involves several options, including planting soybeans in the corridor, to access the nitrogen benefits for the corn.
Gruver also has a plot where he planted cover crops in the corridor. Other variations also include research with and without sidedress nitrogen. This is the third year of the solar corridor project at the farm.
Soybean Yields And Weeds
“The biggest project is this field right here,” said Gruver, walking up to a field of deep green soybeans.
The project involves research into weed control in soybeans.
“In organics, weed control is often the most challenging thing that we try to do. There’s a saying that you need a many, little hammer approach because we don’t have that one great big hammer like a herbicide,” Gruver said.
The foundation of the system is crop rotation along with a cover crop. Mechanical cultivation, with a rotary hoe and a cultivator, is another important part.
The use of precision planting tools also played an important role.
“When we really started improving our weed control, multiple things converged at the same time. One was that we started using our neighbor’s planter, so we were able to plant with more accuracy than with the old planter we were using. We also started planting with his tractor that has autosteer so we could plant very straight rows. Establishing a better stand on straight rows makes it much easier to control weeds subsequently,” Gruver said.
This year, the soybean weed control research also tested planting with a furrow and without one.
“One component of this is planting with residue managers set to go deep. We plant in a furrow and remove about 3 to 4 inches of the soil and then plant in that furrow. The other treatment is standard planting, where we remove very little, if any at all, residue. We have found when you cut that furrow, it can actually help with weed control,” Gruver said.
It also helps with yield.
“Our soybean yield went up 9 bushels an acre when in that furrow treatment,” Clayton said.
Just like any other farmer, Clayton searches for the best price for the organic corn and soybeans raised on the Allison Farm. This year, the farm will produce around 20 acres of organic corn and 20 acres of organic soybeans.
“I contact various companies throughout the year to get their prices and then I hope I make the right decision at the right time. This year, we had a chance, back in January, to sell the beans at $19 a bushel and then they dropped down to $18.50, but you just never know what the prices are going to do,” Clayton said.
Clayton has a contract with Clarkson Grain for the organic soybeans, which will garner $18.50 per bushel. Gruver said he expects the beans to yield at around 60 bushels per acre.
U Of I Collaboration
One of the most complicated projects on the farm is a collaboration with the University of Illinois that is exploring corn breeding as a fit with organics. The study includes research into the corn’s nutritional quality, soil health and other environmental and genetic interactions.
“We have four rows of eight different hybrids, 100 feet long. These plots are planted on dozens of farms across Illinois and the Midwest,” Gruver said.
While the research and science is interesting, planting the plot proved complicated.
“Unlike any of the other studies, for this one, we got little envelopes of seed. We were trying to plant a few hundred grams of seed, less than a pound, with a 12-row planter,” Gruver said.
The technology that proves so useful when planting the other plots wasn’t able to keep up.
“The planter hardly has enough seed to start planting. The planter monitor was having issues. With such a little amount of seed, it wasn’t able to let us know whether we were planting or not, so we have a couple of rows that we had to plant twice. It took several hours to plant maybe 10% of the field,” Gruver said.
One of the hot topics right now is the introduction of nitrogen-fixing microbes that affix to corn roots and feed on sugar to produce nitrogen for the plant to use.
“We have plots with and without a biological nitrogen-fixing microbe. We hoped to use a product that is getting a lot of press right now, called Pivot Bio Proven. That wasn’t available in an organic so we are using an organically approved biological nitrogen fixing microbe,” Gruver said.
“More and more farmers are finding that their crops are sulfur deficient. It tends to be less of an issue on high organic matter soils, less of an issue where you apply manure, but we are finding out whether our soils are lacking in sulfur by doing this kind of study,” Gruver said.
The study involves a control plot without gypsum and a plot where gypsum is applied uniformly at a rate of around 150 pounds per acre. Another plot has pelleted gypsum being applied at a lower rate in row.
“What we’re hoping is we can get the same effect with less product by putting it right on the row,” Gruver said.
Gypsum can have multiple beneficial effects.
“Gypsum is calcium sulfate, so it’s a source of calcium and sulfur and it also can have some physical effects on soil structure. At these low rates, it’s more likely to be just a nutrient effect,” Gruver said.
Purple And Gold
It wouldn’t be a fall harvest at WIU without the familiar purple and gold popcorn. The popcorn is a standard for the Allison Farm and is sold to raise funds for the School of Agriculture.
This year, the purple and gold popcorn is part of the research on the farm.
“This is our second year growing it with solar corridors. We have 0.2-acre planted and that might be a thousand pounds. An acre yields 5,000 pounds, so our yield will probably be somewhere between 700 and 1,000 pounds,” Gruver said.