GROVELAND, Ill. — Utilizing no-till practices has been part of the Zimmerman farm for several decades.
“My dad was a bit of a pioneer. He started no-tilling in the mid-’80s when not a lot of people were doing it around here,” said Brad Zimmerman during the Soy Around the State media tour, organized by the Illinois Soybean Association. “He saw the value of not chisel plowing the soil.”
Zimmerman recalls one spring when he assisted his dad with planting no-till soybeans into cornstalks and the planter was equipped with chains to pull the stalks on top of the furrow.
“I asked dad why we were covering it up,” he said.
“Dad said we want the stalks on top to shield when the rain drops come down because we don’t want it to seal over so the plants can get out of the ground,” said Zimmerman, who’s dad died in 2013 from cancer. “That’s one of the lessons I learned from him that I’ll never forget.”
The fifth-generation farmer started planting cover crops because he wanted to control weeds better, improve the soil structure and feed the microbes in the soil.
“My cover crop journey has gone from oats and radish that winter kill to a 13-way mix ahead of soybeans,” he said. “I want to see what we can do with biology to help make us more profitable and bring nutrients to the plants that they really need.”
On his Tazewell County farm, Zimmerman divided a 40-acre field into half-acre plots to do nutritional studies.
“We do strip-till, some complete fertility with the planter, several foliar feedings, adding biostimulants and different types of phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen to see what we can learn,” he said.
This is the second year for the studies.
“We do quite a bit of soil and tissue testing in season — three soil tests and six tissue tests,” Zimmerman said. “That is not necessarily to try to correct what we’re doing this year, but to understand what we’re missing so we can use that information in the future.”
Zimmerman will do as many as three foliar feeding passes.
“We are using different types of products such as potassium acetate, biostimulants, kelp, and ocean minerals,” he said. “I have found that late season nutrition really does pay.”
Farmers now have lots of ways to apply products including Y-drops, high-clearance sprayers, drones, airplanes or helicopters.
“There are lots of opportunities that dad didn’t have,” Zimmerman said.
Another project for Zimmerman is looking for ways to keep soybean plants shorter.
“We trying a biological this year that causes soybeans to branch on the bottom four nodes,” he said. “And we’re planting lower populations so there’s not as much competition to keep them from growing quite as fast.”
Short-stature corn is also growing in a Zimmerman plot.
“Short corn will be quite a bit more resilient to strong winds,” Zimmerman said.
“If you can grow 250-bushel corn with a shorter plant, then next year you will have less residue to deal with,” he said. “So, maybe you don’t have to do as much tillage to get it to break down to feed the earthworms and biology to get it cycling faster.”
For the past four years, Zimmerman has been a grower for Precision Conservation Management.
“The PCM strategy is education, conservation planning and funding,” said Aidan Walton, precision conservation specialist for PCM. “I work with just under 100 growers to educate them about conservation practices that other growers are or are not successful with.”
Walton meets with each of his growers several times a year to evaluate conservation practices they are already doing and how to adopt new conservation practices on their farm.
“PCM works with NRCS, the corn growers association, the soybean association and tons of other partners to offer cost-share dollars and financial assistance to growers for conservation practices,” he said. “And we get funding to help them try a cover crop.”
PCM representatives work with farmers who have various levels of experience with conservation practices.
“When I sit down with a grower it is very individualized,” Walton said. “We compare his profitability to other growers in the county and region to make sure he is maximizing profitability.”
Although working with PCM takes a lot of time and effort, Zimmerman said, it is a great program.
“I provide my yields, fertility information and the practices I’m using,” he said.
Zimmerman likes the benchmarking aspect which is aggregated so individual farmers are not identified.
“I might be only a couple bushels off from another farmer who is running his four-wheel-drive tractor three times across a field,” he said. “But I’m still profitable without burning all that diesel.”
Sometimes farmers focus on the profitability from one year to the next.
“When you only look at numbers, you can’t see the soil is softer, the root mass is bigger or the water infiltration is better by using no-till and cover crops,” Zimmerman said.
“Those are intangibles that you don’t put on a balance sheet and not a lot of guys understand that.”