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Cutting the canopy

When most people see a 40-year-old detasseling machine, they think of the past. When Brother Nick Renner saw one, he thought of the future.

Renner didn't want to detassel corn, however. Instead, he wanted to cut the tops out of commercial corn while simultaneously seeding cover crops.

Renner, 67, has had a lifelong commitment to soil conservation. When he was 19, he joined a group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. (See sidebar on next page.) And for 43 years he and another brother farmed 1,099 acres of tillable ground near Carthagena, Ohio, that belongs to the group. Today, he oversees that land.

“We've no-tilled since 1975,” says Renner. “And we have been 100% no-till since 1985. I thought we had it figured out, but now I think we need to move up one more notch with cover crops. Some of it is a little bit rolling.”

Timing has always been a problem with cover crops. “I could never figure out how we could get the corn off in time to put something else out there to grow,” he says. Something that would protect the ground from erosion, loosen the soil, and scavenge nutrients.

In west-central Ohio, most cover crops need to be seeded before corn is harvested, typically in late September or early October. For years, people have tried to aerial seed cover crops with mixed results. If it rained at the right time, something usually grew. If it didn't rain at the right time, almost nothing grew.

Renner figured that if he could get a cover crop seeded in late August or early September, about when farmers are filling silos, he'd be adding six weeks to two months to the cover crop's growing season without hurting the corn.

That's what led to the machine shown left. It has a Gandy air seeder mounted on the back. Seed tubes run from the manifold on the Gandy unit to the toolbar on the front of the modified detasseling machine. The outlets from those tubes are only about 10 inches off the ground. That way, all the seed reaches the ground instead of getting hung up in the foliage, as often happens with aerial seeding.

Then, the blades on the detasseling machine cut the tops out of the corn plants a few inches above the ear. That foliage drops down on top of the seed and forms a mulch that traps moisture and increases the chances of getting a stand.

Although mulching the seed was his main goal, Renner thinks there are two other good reasons for cutting the tops out of the corn. One reason is it lets the grain dry out more quickly because more sunlight reaches the ears and there is more air movement around them. The other reason is it reduces the risk of lodging.

Renner purchased the well-used detasseling machine for $1,500. That, however, was just the first step in creating his proof-of-concept seeder.

“I did most of the work,” says Renner, “but I had a mentor.” That mentor is his “good neighbor and good friend,” Willard Dahlinghaus. “He has a genius of a mind when it comes to mechanics. I had him think it through with me,” says Renner.

Refurbishing the machine was more of a challenge than modifying it. Among other things, the steering was loose and the injector pump on the Ford diesel needed repair.

Once the repairs were done, Renner started in on the modifications. The original toolbar that carries the knives was rigid. Renner made that into a folding, seven-row bar so it would be safer and easier to drive or trailer on the road. And he added the Gandy air unit, which was in very good shape when he bought it for $500. He added a belt pulley to the crankshaft on the Ford engine to drive a hydraulic pump that powers the hydraulic motor on the fan of the Gandy unit.

“It was a good hobby last winter,” Renner says.

He tested and demonstrated the machine on 231 acres late last summer, most of which were in 10- to 15-acre plots in four counties in Ohio and one in Indiana. He charged $10 per acre plus fuel.

“I don't do it for the money,” he says. “I just believe in conservation, and I really believe in the cover crop concept.”

Most of the farmers he worked with received cost-share money to establish cover crops because they are in a watershed with environmental problems.

Renner tried several different cover crops, including cereal rye, annual rye, wheat, oats, and radishes. He seeded rye at rates ranging from 30 pounds per acre to 56 pounds. He says 90 pounds is recommended for aerial seeding because so much gets caught up in the whorl.

For help with cover crops, Renner turned to Jim Hoorman, an Ohio State University Extension educator.

Everything worked from a mechanical standpoint, but Renner quickly discovered he was short of power and could only go about 3 mph. The machine was originally designed to cut lightweight tassels rather than the stalks Renner was cutting. Plus, the Gandy unit siphoned off some horsepower.

The weather was another obstacle. “It was the driest year I ever recall,” says Renner. “The worst year to try it.”

Consequently, a lot of the seed didn't germinate until late and a lot of the stands were sparse.

Renner thinks the concept would really shine in a wet year when it would be easier to get the cover crop started and when the corn needs all the help it can get for drying down.

Meet Brother Nick

Brother Nick Renner has been involved with agriculture and religious life in northwest Ohio all of his adult life. In 1962, when he was 19, he joined The Missionaries of the Precious Blood, which is a Society of the Apostolic Life. (Unlike religious orders in the Catholic Church, members of the Apostolic Life do not take vows.) Until 2005, Renner and another brother, now deceased, farmed 1,099 acres of tillable land near Carthagena, Ohio, which is owned by the Catholic Church. Renner now manages the land, which is rented out.

The Missionaries of the Precious Blood was established in 1815. In 1844, seven priests and seven brothers came to Ohio from Switzerland to establish a mission for German immigrants, most of whom were looking for farmland.

Renner has spent most of the last few years working with Companions of the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. These are laypeople who work with Missionaries of the Precious Blood.

Despite the challenges, Renner thinks the practice has a future, and he's busy getting ready for the coming season. He is considering seeding 12 rows at a time but only cutting some of the rows. That would let him compare seeding alone to seeding combined with cutting the tops out of the corn.

An obvious consideration is whether defoliating the top part of the plants hurts yields. Ohio State University agronomist Peter Thomison thinks the yield loss would be small at the late dent stage (R5) when silage is typically harvested and when Renner is topping the corn.

“If some of the corn was still in the dough stage (R4), then yield losses would be much greater,” says Thomison. He advises monitoring plant maturity and not topping the plants until almost all kernels are denting and a kernel milk line is readily visible.

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