STOCKTON, Ill. — Greg Thoren is working to develop a healthy microbial system on his farm in Jo Daviess County.
“Microbes make everything work,” said Thoren during a Nutrient Stewardship Field Day. “Microbes need air, and if they do not have air, they’re dead.”
The regenerative farmer’s operation includes 2,220 acres of row crops and 125 acres of pasture for his herd of 125 beef cows.
“I grow non-GMO crops and I don’t use any seed treatments,” he said. “I’m 100% no-till and 100% cover crops.”
Thoren typically does not use any insecticide.
“I did spray for armyworms this year on a short 30 acres out of 900-some acres of corn and I’m cutting herbicide rates back” the farmer said.
“This is the sixth year without any fertility except nitrogen,” he said. “I’ve been cutting the nitrogen rates back and this year I’m down to about 100 units.”
Cover crops on the farm are utilized for grazing Thoren’s beef herd.
“I seeded one field down this spring with a 15-way mix and I’ve already grazed those 40 acres,” he said. “I got 25 days of pasture by strip grazing and moving the cattle every day which really saved me this year.”
Farmers need to think different, Thoren said.
“I’m not a yield guy; I’m a net profit guy,” he said.
Thoren compared his system on 800 acres of corn last year to conventional farmers representing 110,000 acres for yields and input costs.
“I averaged 185-bushel corn and the conventional guys averaged 215 bushels per acre, so I gave up 30 bushels of corn,” he said. “With corn at $6.50 per bushel, I’m $195 per acre behind on gross revenue.”
However, Thoren’s expenses were $330 per acre less than the conventional farmers.
“So, I netted $135 per acre more than they did,” he said. “That’s how I measure my yield — by net profit, not bushels per acre.”
For his soybeans, Thoren seeds them into cereal rye.
“It took forever for them to come up,” he said. “I rolled the cereal rye after I planted the soybeans and I did not use an ounce of Roundup this year.”
For his non-GMO beans, Thoren receives a $2.50 premium when they are sold.
“None of this stuff I’m talking about is something I invented,” Thoren said. “People have been doing this stuff for years and we need to do more because my opinion is you’re going to be forced to do it.”
John Musser, certified crop adviser at Stephenson Service Company, has been working with Thoren to evaluate different systems on his farm since 2012.
“One of the challenges we may have with no seed treatments is stand and how well the plants get started,” Musser said. “With no-till and cover crops, the ground stays colder and wetter longer so the corn doesn’t come out of the ground as fast.”
This year, Musser said, there is a higher level of billbug activity at the farm than he’s seen for a while.
“It’s not a new bug and generally it’s in the bottoms associated with a nutsedge issue,” he said. “It is also associated with no-till and slower plant development where the billbug will burrow into the growing point and you’ll get an ugly looking plant.”
The dry weather this year has impacted the crops on Thoren’s farm.
“We have corn and soybean potash deficiency with the dry June,” Musser said. “We’ve seen this potash deficiency show up on most farms at some point.”
Potash can get trapped between the clay particles and doesn’t get released without the water movement during dry periods, the crop adviser said.
“It may not be low in potash, but we’re low in availability for 2023,” he said. “Don’t get excited about needing a lot of potash because you may not; it might be a weather phenomenon.”
Just like on many other farms, waterhemp is a challenging weed for Thoren.
“We’ve found with high levels of rye as a cover crop we’ve reduced the speed in which waterhemp comes along, but we haven’t gotten rid of it,” Musser said. “I don’t expect to have zero herbicide applications, but there are opportunities to reduce the amount.”