June 27, 2022

Farmer’s goal to improve soil health

WORTHINGTON, Iowa — Ryan Gibbs moved to no-till and cover crops five years ago and is now taking his goal of improving soil health to the next level by moving away from fungicides and insecticides.

Gibbs and his wife, Kristy, operate Gibbsfield Farms where they grow corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle, as well as offer custom planting, harvesting and seed applications, and is aiming to have his farm become regenerative-verified. He also sells cover crop seed.

Gibbs was featured in a recent Cover Crop Strategies podcast.

He decided to move away from using fungicides and insecticides after doing some in-depth research.

“In the last year I got a chance to meet a lot of very intelligent people who are doing some really neat stuff on their farms and having good success with it. I started learning more about the soil biology and what we’re actually doing when we’re putting some of the stuff on,” Gibbs said.

“I own a microscope and took some microscope classes. I met a lot of farmers, lab owners and lab technicians, that have helped me along the way, and they’ve been helping learn about our fungi and bacteria ratio in our soils and what we’re doing to it when we put these products on.”

Solid Foundation

Gibbs said plants need a solid foundation in the form of soil, similar to a house needing a good foundation.

“You start with a good foundation and the house is going to stand. You start with a weak foundation and you’re constantly putting band-aids on it to keep the house up. It’s the same way with your corn and soybean plant. If we build up that soil and make it healthy, then you don’t have to throw all of those band-aids on it to keep the plants healthy and keep them standing,” he noted.

“Earthworms are the best livestock any farmer can have and they’re free.”

—  Ryan Gibbs, owner and operator, Gibbsfield Farms

“A fungicide prevents the fungus from growing on the plant. It’s basically like putting a Band-Aid on the plant. If we can build up our fungi and bacteria in the soil, that plant is more resistant to those diseases.”

Gibbs said he previously would do two applications of fungicide and sometimes three for his Corn Growers contest corn.

“We put the fungicide on and then we harvest our corn and whine and complain that the corn stalks won’t break down. We have all this residue and it won’t break down. Why is it not breaking down? Fungi eats carbon and needs a source, it needs something to eat such as corn stalks, woodchips, grass clippings. That’s consumed by fungi,” he said.

“When you spray a fungicide on a corn plant and kill off all of the fungi, you have nothing to break it down into the soil. So, we’re stuck with all this residue that won’t break down, and now we’ve got to it with tillage. I hear guys say they can’t no-till because they have too much residue. Well, let’s step back a minute and look at the whole picture.”

He made the move completely away from fungicides last year in an effort to build soil health and still produced 252-bushel corn for the Corn Growers contest in a no-till corn-on-corn field.

Good, Bad Bugs

Gibbs also cut back on our insecticide last year by over 50%, applying only in-furrow, but in retrospect wishes he didn’t apply any.

“You’ve got to realize for every good bug there’s a bad bug. It’s a predator/prey relationship. When you put insecticide down you’re not just targeting one bug. You’re going to kill them all. If we can bring in the beneficials they’re going to keep the bad ones in check. There are bad ones out there, but if we can keep them in check that’s a whole new ballgame,” he said.

“I never liked working with insecticides to begin with. Anything that messes with a nervous system of a living creature is probably not good for humans to be around. The insecticide targets the nervous system to kill the bug.”

Rather than using traditional insecticide this growing season, Gibbs will use chitin, a product derived from the shells of all crustaceans and insect exoskeletons.

A chitin-treated plant exhibits improved nutrient absorption and increased survival rates in tough growing conditions.

“It helps the fungal walls and cell walls’ structure plus it helps to deter insects from the seed. At least that’s what I’ve been reading and from the folks I’ve talked to. So, we put that in-furrow, we did leave check strips in every single field. We had it flagged, we’re going to be doing root digs and monitor it all season long,” Gibbs said.

“Chitin helps your fungi, it helps your soil and it doesn’t kill off stuff. I’m a ‘liver,’ not a ‘dier.’ I’d rather see more stuff living than try to kill off everything and try to control everything. We were running some of that in-furrow.”

Always hungry to learn, Gibbs is also trying compost extract, working with Living Soils Compost Labs and a nearby farmer who has been using the product. Compost extract is the end biological product from compost.

“We’re using Johnson-Su bioreactors to make fungal-dominant compost and basically putting beneficial biology, right in-furrow, building that soil biology to release nutrients naturally,” Gibbs said.

He also will not use commercial fertilizer this growing season, moving only to hog manure.

“Hog manure is very beneficial. It has a lot of nutrients in it, and with the price of fertilizer, I already have 200 pounds of nitrogen out there,” he added.

Cover Crops

Gibbs has witnessed firsthand the benefits of cover crops that include improving soil health, weed suppression and reducing runoff.

“Building up soil health is huge. Anytime you keep living roots in the soil, there’s biology happening underneath the soil. You drive down the road, you see a field that’s chisel plowed or even a field that’s just sitting fallow with no cover crop, there is very little to no biology happening in that soil. There’s nothing going on. There’s no party,” he said.

“Throw some cover crops out there, you have roots growing. Even if that cereal rye is one inch tall in the fall and it snows, then roots went in the ground. There’s still something happening all winter long beneath that snow. There’s nutrients being mineralized, there’s earthworms working.

“Earthworms are the best livestock any farmer can have and they’re free. And you don’t have to go feed them every day. You don’t have to haul their manure. They reproduce by themselves in the soil. They spread their manure in the soil.

“Worm castings, I learned this the other day, have a pH of seven. It’s a neutral pH. Well, that helps to keep your soils in balance with your pH level. We all put on lime when the pH is low. Plenty of earthworms will help to bring some of that pH back down to keep that soil healthy. So, living roots on the ground keeps that biology, keeps microbes working, releasing nutrients, recycling stuff, just like it’s supposed to happen.”

Gibbs typically uses a cereal rye cover crop for weed suppression ahead of soybeans and legume covers such as clovers and hairy vetch produce nitrogen in the soil for the next corn crop.

Tom Doran

Tom Doran

Field Editor