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4 soil health practices for boosting the bottom line

As first-generation farmers, Eric and Stephanie Niemeyer launched their MadMax Farms on 250 acres near Powell, Ohio, 15 years ago with just a dream, some old tillage equipment, and a bare-bones budget.

“We had just lost our 5-year-old son, Maxwell,” says Eric Niemeyer. “I had always dreamed of having a farm, and because of our loss, life seemed extremely short. We decided that because I had this dream, we should pursue it. And God would open the doors.”

Armed with that dream and a new farm named after their son as well as their daughter, Madison, now 17, the Niemeyers jumped headfirst into uncharted waters. They learned how to swim quickly.

Today, an old four-bottom plow is parked out of the way. In its place, a no-till planter seeds corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and cover crops on the 1,250-acre farm.

Farmer Eric Niemeyer
Photo credit: Eric Niemeyer
The couple’s soil-conserving ways caught the eye of the American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national organization working to protect agricultural land, to promote environmentally sound farming practices, and to keep farmers on the land. The AFT included MadMax Farms in its compilation of case studies of farms from around the country where practices promote soil health. The case studies, done in 2018, quantify economic and environmental outcomes of conserving practices.

The AFT study found that profit potential on the Niemeyers’ farm increased by $38 an acre, primarily as a result of adopting no-till, planting cover crops, and using variable-rate fertilizer applications.

“We did a partial-budget analysis that looked specifically at the economics of individual changed practices and how these contributed to or detracted from the farm’s overall financial bottom line,” says Brian Brandt, AFT agriculture conservation innovations director. “The study limited its focus to variables affected by the adoption of soil health practices.”

Four Changes 

These are four changes on the Niemeyers’ farm that had the greatest positive economic impact.

1. Adopting no-till. The Niemeyers switched to no-till in 2011 initially as a way to reduce labor. When combined with cover crops, no-till’s soil-building benefits became apparent to them later.

“Eric’s no-till system has lowered labor and machinery expenses by $35 an acre,” says Brandt. “Cost savings from eliminating his tillage equipment allowed Eric to upgrade and increase the size of his planter.”

2. Applying fertilizer at variable rates. “Using the technology that lets us apply fertilizers at variable rates has dramatically reduced the cost of our fertilizer inputs,” says Niemeyer. “We’re putting the fertilizer where it is the most effective according to the yield data showing the areas in the field where crops are most likely to respond to the fertilizer.”

3. Growing cover crops. Niemeyer grows multi-species cover crops on all his acres. (See “Cover Crop Tactics.”) The planting and terminating of the cover crops increase input costs but bolster the bottom line in the long run. That’s due, in part, to increased yields resulting from improved soil health.

“Our soil organic matter has gone from 1.5% to 3%,” says Niemeyer. “The soil is more mellow, and it crumbles and breaks apart easily. The soil is full of earthworms, and when we get a 2-inch rain, the water soaks into the soil rather than making mud on the surface.”

Increasing crop yields reflect the improved soil health. Since 2014, when good weather permits, his per-acre yields have climbed from 165 to 195 bushels for corn and from 45 to 65 bushels for soybeans. Along with better soil health, improved crop varieties play a role as well in the increasing crop yields.

“Better soil health has also led to better nutrient cycling, improved weed management, and less disease and insect pressure,” says Brandt. “These changes, along with more precise nitrogen applications, allowed Eric to cut nitrogen for corn by more than 5%. More importantly, he’s been able to cut phosphorus and potassium applications by 50% for both corn and soybeans. As a result, he is saving almost $18 per acre each year on fertilizer.”

Nutrient losses from fields are also reduced. Using USDA’s Nutrient Tracking Tool, the AFT study found that Niemeyer’s use of no-till, cover crops, and variable-rate fertilizer applications reduced his losses of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment by 58%, 74%, and 88%, respectively.

4. Planting green. Niemeyer spring-plants cash crops into green cover crops, with the cover crop stand sometimes as tall as 6 feet. “I crimp the cover crop after seeding to terminate it, and the dense layer of biomass helps control weeds,” he says. “We eliminate the need for applying a burndown herbicide to the cover crop. We just follow up then with a postemergence herbicide application.”

The savings in herbicide from planting green comes to $18 an acre, according to the AFT analysis.

The positive economic outcome of soil health practices on the Niemeyers’ farm tracks with the results the AFT found on other farms of diverse enterprises. “These case studies present sound economic evidence that farmers can make changes to improve soil health while maintaining or improving their farm’s overall potential for profitability,” says Brandt.

Cover Crop Tactics

Eric Niemeyer annually plants cover crops across all 1,250 acres of his operation. “I’m trying to create a living ecosystem in the soil,” he says.

The multispecies mixes include grasses, brassicas, and legumes, and Niemeyer customizes the blends to fit the cash crop he’s seeding into and his soil-health goals for a given field.

Niemeyer modified a high-clearance sprayer to create a customized cover crop seeder that permits seeding of cover crops into standing corn.

“I seed cover crops in corn when the corn tassels, sometime during the first half of August,” he says. “In deciding when to seed the cover crop, I consider soil moisture and the density of the corn foliage.”

When seeding cover crops into standing soybeans, he waits for the soybeans to start drying down. “When 15% to 20% of the soybean leaves are starting to turn yellow, the plant canopy starts to open up enough for the cover crop seedlings to get sunlight.”

Learn More

Eric Niemeyer


Brian Brandt


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