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Focus on whole-farm soil health

This farm's use of no-till and cover crops spans decades

While carbon markets, private groups, and government agencies race to incentivize farmers’ and ranchers’ adoption of soil health practices, Mike Shuter, a corn and soybean grower from Frankton, Indiana, quietly goes about his day – business as usual. Focusing on soil health is nothing new to Shuter. He switched to no-till 38 years ago, when the untested practice drew criticism from neighbors. He began strip-tilling in front of corn 15 years ago and adopted cover crops 10 years back.

Today, his 3,000-acre Shuter Sunset Farms, which he operates in partnership with sons Brian and Patrick and their families, is a study in the benefits gained from a long-term commitment to soil health.

While Shuter practiced no-till for years before beginning to grow cover crops, it was the addition of the cover crops that really jump-started the soil health benefits.

“We’ve seen a dramatic improvement in water infiltration,” he says. “Because of that, we’ve been able to affect drainage in fields that may have needed ditching. When cover crops get rooted down deeply enough, they help areas of fields dry better in the spring or after heavy rainfalls. We’ve also seen an improvement in the tilth of the soil.”

Hand in hand with better water infiltration has come reduced or eliminated water runoff, eliminating or reducing nutrient runoff.

Soil organic matter has increased over time from 2.5% to 3% and 4%, and fertilizer inputs have decreased by a third to a half.

About 80% of the Shuters’ operation comprises nearly two-thirds corn, a third soybeans, and some winter wheat. On the remaining 20% of the farm they grow organic corn, soybeans, and some specialty crops.

The Shuters also contract-finish up to 9,000 hogs a year, and Brian and Patrick run a cow herd of 80 to 100 head. They feed the calves to finish weights in an on-farm feedlot using primarily farm-raised feeds. They direct market the finished cattle through a local meat market they own in partnership with another family.

The Shuters apply the cattle and hog manure to fields.

Cover Crop Expansion

The family’s use of cover crops has expanded over the years to encompass the entire farm. “Every acre we planted this spring had cover crops seeded on it last fall,” says Shuter.

For instance, when they plant cover crops into soybeans for the subsequent corn crop, they use a high-wheeled broadcaster to seed a mix of annual ryegrass and rape into the beans after the leaves turn yellow and just before they start to drop. The fallen leaves then trap moisture at the soil surface and thus help to promote germination of the cover crop seed. They harvest the soybeans in September.

While corn follows soybeans on most soybean acres, the Shuters do plant winter wheat on some harvested soybean fields. After combining the winter wheat the next summer, they no-till drill into the wheat stubble a cover crop cocktail mix of eight to 15 species.

When planting a cover crop into a field of corn that is going to go back to corn, they seed a mix of annual ryegrass and rape. When a cornfield is going back to soybeans, they plant cereal rye as a cover crop.

They use the high-wheeled seeder to broadcast the cover seed into the corn. “We seed the cover crop when the corn is still a little green,” says Shuter. “After we harvest the corn in September and October, the cover crop is able to get started before we get a lot of freezing temperatures.”

In spring, they terminate cover crops by either spraying or by using a roller-crimper.


“We typically plant soybeans into green cereal rye that’s in the boot stage,” says Shuter. “After planting the beans, we’ll terminate the rye with a roller-crimper, and the beans just take off.”

They also use the crimper to terminate the cocktail cover planted after winter wheat. They find the crimper particularly effective at terminating species that survive the winter, such as vetch, peas, or clover.

Crimping has reduced chemical inputs. “Crimping eliminates the need for a burndown chemical at planting time,” says Shuter. “In the case of soybeans then, we only spray once, later in the growing season. That cuts our chemical use on soybeans by half, saving us $20 to $25 an acre.”

Fertilizer inputs have been reduced as well by the Shuters’ whole-farm soil health practices. “We’ve been able to cut back on our fertilizer expenses by a third to a half, depending on the field,” says Shuter. “If it’s a field on rented ground that’s been under tillage recently, we can’t cut back as quickly as we can in fields that have a longer history of no-till and cover crops.”

Of course, cover crops account for building fertility in the soil, as do nutrients available in the increasing levels of soil organic matter. Livestock manure adds fertility as well.

Buckwheat is particularly helpful in reducing their need to apply phosphorous. The Shuters sometimes include buckwheat in a cover crop mix or sometimes plant it as a field crop when weather or late-season planting conditions favor it.

“Buckwheat helps to loosen the soil, and it helps to release phosphorus that’s been stored in the soil, making it more available to the plants,” says Shuter. “Growing buckwheat periodically has helped us cut back on the amount of phosphorous we apply.”

Purpose on Earth

Shuter’s decades-long focus on building soil health and the success of his regenerative system have led him to public speaking engagements in places near and far from home, including Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Quebec.

His 48 seasons of farming also include leadership roles in the Indiana Corn Growers Association, the Indiana Corn Marketing Council, and the Indiana Farm Bureau. He’s also been named to the National Association of Conservation Districts’ Soil Health Champions Network.

In the meantime, Shuter and his sons will keep on doing what they’re doing — building and promoting soil health.

“In 2014 I had quadruple bypass heart surgery,” he says. “I believe God left me here on Earth to do something positive — like the work we’re doing with soil health.”

No Carbon Rewards?

Mike Shuter’s on-farm experience, public speaking, and organizational involvement give him a broad-based view of the flurry of activity and interest surrounding carbon markets and their incentivization of the soil health practices that sequester carbon in the soil.

This is what he’s done for decades.

It frustrates him that the current marketplace seemingly offers no rewards for farmers such as him who have likely been sequestering carbon for years, through a matrix of whole-farm soil health practices  new to many farmers but old hat to Shuter.

“It appears we have to do something new — or different — in order to be paid for sequestering carbon,” he says.

That said, he encourages farmers considering carbon market contracts to read the contracts carefully for conditions that may be overly rigid.

“I looked at one carbon contract that seemed to nullify its terms if the farmer so much as tilled to help the laying of a pipeline,” he says. “As much as I hate to admit it, there may be some federal oversight needed to coordinate and regulate the emerging carbon marketplace.”

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