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Crop Tech Tour: Let your soils work for you

From his seat in the combine's cab while harvesting his '08 corn crop, Attica, Indiana, farmer Dan De Sutter describes some of the tillage technology and soil management practices on his farm.

Capping off the fall Crop Tech Tour, a visit to the Dan DeSutter farm near Attica, Indiana, showed that conservation technologies can play a big role in mainstream production agriculture. De Sutter is working with a number of ideas on his 3,800-acre farm to improve his soils, as way to cut input costs while boosting yields.

Like many farmers across the Corn Belt, De Sutter has dealt with a cool, wet spring and late-planted crops this season. And, now with harvest running late, the corn was slow to dry down.

The early returns from the combine were positive, however.

"Yields are good, maybe not 'monster good,' like what we'd hoped for at one point. But, we'll be close to or at a record for our farm this year," he says.

Soybean yields were hitting as high as 78 bu/ac. "Something we've known for a long time is that if you want to raise good beans, just don't raise them very often," De Sutter said, referring to his preference for growing soybeans in a long rotation.

"We had a couple fields of beans this year where we had alfalfa, pasture, or other crops, and had not planted beans in five to seven years; that's the secret to 70-bushel beans. The same beans planted right down the road in what is probably better soil, are yielding in the low- to mid-fifties. If we can lengthen our rotation, we know it will improve our crops."

The other end of the spectrum -- continuous corn -- was looking good, too. "Continuous corn continues to impress," De Sutter says. "Our no-till continuous corn just seems to get better every year."

De Sutter employs continuous no-till in his operation, along with liberal use of buffer strips and grass waterways. Manure applications are routine on much of his ground.

"We've been no-tilling for 20 years, and then in the last ten we've been starting to use cover crops, where ever and whenever possible. We're trying to find new and better cover crops. What we're looking for is a legume that we can seed after the corn comes out that can consistently give us 100 to 150 pounds of N for the next crop," he says. "We haven't found that yet, and I'm not sure it exists given our latitude and growing season."

De Sutter also has started a grass-fed beef operation, as way to diversify his enterprises and help support longer crop rotations.

The telltale story with his soils-based approach to crop production came during the wet weather in the early spring.

"I think the thing that made a big difference this year was the infiltration rates of our soils. We were lucky that we didn't get any of the huge rains that other people did, but we did not have to replant a single acre," De Sutter says. "I attribute that to the fact that our ground can absorb moisture because of long-term no-till and some of these other practices."

De Sutter's theories on crops and soils management are sound, says Dan Towery, a crop advisor with Ag Conservation Solutions, Lafayette, Indiana.

"Dan has taken his farm to the next level by adding manure and cover crops to his continuous no-till operation. This has improved the soil biology, which improves nutrient cycling and results in lower commercial fertilizer inputs with top yields," Towery says. "He is a prime example of the concept, 'Let your soil work for you, rather than you working your soil.' His soils are about as 'weather proof,' tolerating very wet or very dry conditions, as is possible."

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