Standing amidst his crop, Peter Rost watched in agony as the corn seedlings were decimated right before his eyes. With every gust of wind, he felt the proof—the sting of soil granules hitting his face, arms and legs as the wind took them as far as they would fly. His topsoil, the lifeblood of every row crop farm, was vanishing right before his eyes.
“At that point I realized what I’m doing isn’t working,” Rost says. He didn’t till his New Madrid, Mo. bottom ground soils, but did till the irrigated ground one to two times annually—which was the case for this particular field.
Five years ago, that farm suffered a devastating loss because of wind erosion, a mistake Rost swore he wouldn’t make twice. Today his 3,000-acre corn and soybean operation is 100% no till and he recently added cover crops to keep his soil where he needs it, and to save money in the process.
“It’s taken five years to find what works for us and everyone’s operation is different,” Rost explains. “What works for my neighbor might not work for me, so cater it to your own style. Try what your neighbor is doing but don’t copy it exactly—find what could work for you.”
After that windy ah-ha moment he switched his farm to 100% no-till the following year and experimented with cover crops in a few areas. Today cover crops blanket every acre of his farm, and despite trial and error, he’s dedicated to keeping it that way.
“We’ve had a lot of learning moments, the second year we did cover crops is rained and they grew so big that even after crimping the cover they were so thick we couldn’t plant—we had to burn them,” he says. “Now we plant cover crops in the fall and terminate early in the spring so they’re graveyard dead when we plant the cash crop.”
He flies cover crop seed over his fields while the cash crop is still growing to get them in as early as possible. In the future, he’d like to try planting into green cover crops but realizes there is still a lot he’ll need to learn and evaluate before going full-bore.
Before trying anything new on his farm, Rost asks these questions:
1. What are the equipment needs? Am I set up for this type of operation?
2. Can my soil handle this practice?
3. Do I have the labor needed to accomplish my goals?
In the case of no-till, Rost saw equipment and labor savings. In labor alone, he estimates $50,000 in annual savings because he doesn’t need a full-time employee anymore. He and his father can manage the farm together, with a little seasonal help at harvest. In addition, they were able to sell their tillage equipment for immediate savings in maintenance.
“Soil health is great but ultimately you have to make a crop,” Rost advises. “Take baby steps. I’ve seen so many farmers who go full bore on something and stub their toe and say ‘I’ll never do that again.’ So, start small, if you have one bad experience don’t give up on it.”