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Farmer: Soil health the very root of quality crops, yields
Indiana Correspondent

AUBURN, Ind. — Good soil quality should be the goal of every producer, a central Indiana farmer said recently.
Healthy soil has led to increases in yields, nutrient efficiency and increased water infiltration on his family farm, said Rodney Rulon, co-owner of Rulon Enterprises in Hamilton County. He said he’s also noticed a reduction in disease, and improved plant health and economics.

“We want to grow a crop that gives us a good economic return,” Rulon said. “We look at the economics and if it doesn’t make sense, we won’t do it. We’re doing what’s right for the environment and for the future of our soils.”

Rulon’s farm has been 100 percent no-till since 1989. He said he’s seen no yield drag with no-till, even after the drought of 2012. He talked about his farm operation during the 12th annual Tri-State Conservation Farming Expo, March 1 in Auburn.

His farm uses continuous no-till rather than rotational and has proper drainage, Rulon said. The use of no-till allows for improved soil quality and biology, he said, adding they do a lot of sampling to be sure their soils are properly balanced.

Cover crops are also an important part of the management program, Rulon said. “I wish we had an understanding of cover crops in the 1990s,” he said. “The use of cover crops helps in erosion control and in the transition from tillage to no-till. They also help build the soil structure.”

Rulon said he uses a variety of cover crops, including annual rye grass, cereal rye, oats, radishes and clover.

These crops end up paying for themselves, he noted. “We look at the costs and do comparisons,” he explained. “We look at the economics seriously. We want to make money. It’s hard to imagine a year we don’t cover the costs of the cover crops.”

Financial motivation shouldn’t be the only reason farmers care about their soil’s health, Rulon said.

“We are responsible for what leaves our farms,” he explained. “There are people watching. We believe in being sustainable. We’re a fourth-generation farm and we want the fifth and sixth generations to come back to the farm. We take care of the land and we take care of the resources.”

As a part of working to improve their soil’s quality, farmers should build a good soil database by sampling annually, said Joe Nester, owner of Nester Ag Management in Bryan, Ohio. Having that database will help avoid taking a blanket approach to farm management, which can be a part of the problem, Nester said.

“If you’re guessing, more often than not, you’re going to be wrong in that field,” he added. He also spoke during the Tri-State Conservation Farming Expo.

Sampling doesn’t measure soil structure and health, which are also important to a successful farm operation, Nester noted. Soil structure influences water supply, nutrient availability and residue decomposition.

“Soil is a living thing,” he said. “Soil, water and air have more effect on yield than nutrient levels.”

Nester listed several changes in production agriculture over the last 10 years that impact today’s farm management. Included were changes in hybrids, seed treatments, chemicals and the timing of planting.

“After all these changes, could our nutrient requirements for crops still be the same as they were 30 years ago?” he asked. “If they are, we were wrong 30 years ago.”

There isn’t one perfect system or management style that will work on every farm, Nester said.

“Everyone does something slightly different,” he noted. “Some (practices) are more profitable than others. It’s easy to blame the wrong practice. But no-till isn’t the silver bullet, and tillage isn’t the silver bullet. There’s no single solution.”