A Good Crop after a Rough Start
One in a series of articles looking at the business of agriculture in northwest Ohio.
Scientists have determined that agriculture is the source of more than 80 percent of the phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie where it contributes to harmful algal blooms. (See the link to the EPA study here.) This series shows how area farmers make choices during the year to both grow a profitable crop and protect the environment that is their livelihood.
Earlier this year, in mid-May, Wood County Farmer Brendyn George was a couple weeks behind schedule, struggling to get his fields planted due to too much rain and cold. In June, as he waited for wheat to ripen and for his corn and beans to get established, he was worried that he might have to claim crop insurance for the first time ever. But in early September, things were looking up. “We had just the right amount of rain,” he said. “There were sixteen or eighteen days in a row with no rain and then an average of an inch a week, which was ideal.”
Wheat has been brought in, and the harvest for soybeans is on target to start the third week in September. Two or three weeks after that and corn should be ready, right on time and all looking healthy. Grasshoppers are chewing on the soybean leaves but the bean pods are ripe and drying as needed.
Winter wheat, which is planted in October, was harvested the first week of July during a welcome dry spell. While the yield was good and the wheat was healthy, George doesn’t make much money on it. He says that, like his father told him, growing wheat is mostly to prepare for growing of corn. Each of his fields rotates from wheat, to corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, and then back to wheat.
Adding wheat into a crop rotation is beneficial in several ways. Wheat is planted in the fall and usually germinates quickly. The plants anchor the soil with deep root systems and absorb water all winter. The deep roots prevent soil compaction which encourages healthy microbial action. After the wheat grain is harvested, the wheat straw is incorporated back into the soil, returning nutrients and organic matter.
In early September, while he’s waiting for corn and beans to be ready, he has a chance to improve the field and prepare it for corn planting next April. In the season between a wheat crop and a corn crop, he incorporates the wheat stubble, adds fertilizer according to his soil tests, and adds lime as a “sweetener” to make the fertilizer work better. Lime adjusts the soil acidity to a condition where plants can more effectively access the nutrients of phosphorus and nitrogen.
The fertilizer is applied sparingly, based on soil testing George has hired out. The soil tests are linked to GPS which then direct the application of fertilizer from the cab of the tractor. The work of breaking up compaction, incorporating straw and other summer growth, and adding in the lime and fertilizer is done on one pass to reduce soil compaction. George has built his own system of blades and light rakes that form a long attachment to the tractor. As soon as this field is worked, George and his partner Jared Rader will drop the water control boards, blocking water into the fields all winter and keeping the nutrients in the soil and out of the waterways. The boards won’t come up again until April when it’s time to plant corn in this field.
George describes his philosophy as limited no-till. A field is only tilled once every four years on a regular cycle of wheat, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, and back to wheat. On a warm day in September, he and partner Jared Rader are breaking up some compacted soil and adding the lime and fertilizer.
Jared Rader after the wheat harvest. Adding lime and fertilizer before dropping water boards for the winter.
Water boards are drainage control structures that block field tiles,
holding water back in the fields. Boards are lifted to dry the fields for
planting and harvest. Brendyn George demonstrates how they work.