Strategies of farmers who are shaving costs while building yields

This spring opens Year 12 in our adventure with WakeUP as an ideal, non-toxic surfactant and penetrant "helper" for farmers who are redirecting their crop-growing strategy toward healthier soil, resilient yield capability and lower costs. This report lists common characteristics of these farmers' management strategies.

April 29, 2020 — Probably our family's biggest satisfaction over the decade has been sharing the enthusiasm of growers who've enriched their understanding of biological power in crop production. They tell us, "We know we're on the right track," promoting health in their own families as well as the farming environment. They also have consistently wider profit margins as insulation against the current commodity price crash, which is compounded by a global pandemic. The overview: They've steadily redirected their crop production budgets from NPK and toxic chemicals toward healthier, biologically based inputs. With time, the power of soil biology gradually reduces the need for purchased fertility and chemicals.

One of our leading examples is Windy Lane Farms of Indiana, owned and operated by the family of Hal Brown and son Ty Brown. Here's a link to a PDF revealing their long-term "bio" approach, which emphasizes cover crops. 

Over many years, Hal has gained in-depth knowledge of practical soil microbiology. He formerly marketed a couple of live microbial products, which were assembled by a professional microbiologist. Today, he "manufactures" his own microbe blends. He's 75% done with beans; waiting for delivery of seed beans from Brazil to finish. He has been a seed grower for Beck's for more than 30 years; is currently a dealer for Beck's. He says, "The beans we planted April 6-8 are starting to emerge. I have no issues with planting beans early. That way you get more internodes, as they like the longer nights. We're hoping to average more than 17 internodes, which equals more pods."

Hal tells us:

"The 'soil soup' I brew costs me $0.40 an acre for 2 gallons.  I don't have any super yield maps to show the benefit — just my observations of growing roots, plant appearance and see what it looks like under a microscope."

He suggests this simple test to evaluate the viability of a "bugs in the jug" product which specifies live microbials:

"You don't need a microscope.  Add the recommended rate to recommended rate of water in a container and let it sit in a warm room, uncapped.  Go back in a few days and smell it and see if anything is growing in the container.  Or for fun, put a balloon on the neck of the container and see if you can blow it up."  

The link above takes you to a two-page report on Hal and Ty's use of cover crops. His updated message to us notes:

"Our cover crops are a huge asset for building fertility and reducing fertilizer rates.  We have been doing cover crops for
many years. We aren't using a lot of co-op fertilizer. We fertilize according to the Haney Tests from Ward Labs."

Hal caps his management strategy with this perspective: "At the end of the day, God is still in charge."

Now for the bullet list of biological management shifts. It's a paradigm change from what I was told in the 1960s by the crops editor of Farm Journal: "The soil's only essential purpose is to hold up the plant. We can add NPK fertilizer and chemicals for everything the crop needs."

Foliar fed soybeans: Every other six rows were foliar fed with potassium sulfate in a K-deficient field.

Incremental changes to help you become biologically oriented rather than chemical oriented:

  • Cover crops. Each species in a cover crop mix stimulates a buildup of at least 10 species of beneficial microorganisms, ranging from bacteria to mycorrhizal fungi. Some bacterial species are nitrogen fixers, replacing purchased nitrogen. "Bio" farmers recognize that anhydrous ammonia is a powerful killer of beneficial soil organisms. So are some nitrogen "stabilizers," which kill bacteria that denitrify anhydrous. One farmer told us: "Somehow a bucket of nitrogen stabilizer got dumped into our hog manure pit, which normally is digesting really well. After that product mingled with the pit manure, a crust formed so hard that a rat could run across the pit from one end to the other. I decided that an anti-bacterial N stabilizer wasn't consistent with our goal to build soil life." One of our frustrations with cover crops is that a winter-hardy species like cereal rye has to be terminated the following spring.  For most growers, the standard burndown is glyphosate. Thus we prefer early seeding of grasses and other crops like tillage radish, which winterkill. Farmers who've persisted with cover crops for years can see their measures of soil respiration growing steadily, as reflected in the Haney soil test.

 

  • Live biologicals for seed treatment, and 2x2 or in-furrow application. We're seeing several firms offering a widening array of well-studied live microbes which accelerate nutrient solubility and availability for emerging roots. We've tested several of these in strip trials, and our WakeUP clients have run several field trials on their own. Interesting fact: So far it's not the mega chemical companies that excel in this technology. It's the small firms with years of experience. Generally, farmers advancing on this front are not those with huge acreages, who can't slow the planter to refill with biological or nutrient products.

 

  • Foliar feeding of crops, guided by tissue tests and sap tests. Probably less than a third of conventional farmers foliar feed. If they count on the co-op to handle this spray trip, the co-op's charge for the spray service is a restraint. We've encouraged midsized farmers to own a second or third-generation high-clearance sprayer for foliar feeding. You can even get by without GPS and a computer-controlled spray system for this job. But having your own rig offers you better control of timing for foliar applications.

 

  • WakeUP Spring and WakeUP Summer to enhance foliar nutrient coverage, translocation and metabolism. A decade of field research reinforces this rule of thumb:  If a foliar offers a 5-bu. increase in corn, adding 3 to 5 ounces of WakeUP per acre to the spray water before adding the product will give you another 3 to 4 bu. per acre.  Our first recommendation — 10 years ago — was to spray WakeUP on corn and soybeans at the V2 stage. WakeUP, absorbed immediately into the crop's phloem system, accelerates sugar translocation to roots. That in turn feeds more energy to soil microbes, which have 10 times the nutrient dissolving power of the roots alone.

 

  • Minimum till or no-till,  especially if you're skilled enough to manage covers which give you weed control without a burndown with glyphosate, gramoxone or other powerful herbicide. (We keep encouraging one of our friends to gain EPA approvals and technical refinements for a burndown based on acetic acid, now available in Australia.) Vertical tillage is a candidate in this category too: Anything which increases soil aeration while avoiding disruption of soil fungal hyphae helps maintain soil life.

 

  • Fall Residue digestion. This has been demonstrated as a soil life builder for three decades, using live microbial blends. New marketing entries for residue breakdown products should generate intense competition. One of the best natural digesters is a cover crop, which builds up populations of lignin-munching microbes.