During a dry season, Larry Bonnell’s corn yield exceeded the county average by about 100 bu., which he attributes to his no-till and cover crop practices.
Cover crops and no-till boost soil quality and yield
After retiring from a factory job, Larry Bonnell of Pittsford, Mich., looked forward to farming during the day, no longer forced to plant and harvest in the evenings and on weekends. The extra time and attention he’s been able to devote to crop production is paying off in higher yields and lower applied fertilizer rates. The reason, he says, is no-till and cover crops—the same practices that keep his nutrients at home.
His keen attention to crop nutrients earned him recognition as an Upstream Hero by the Conservation Technology Information Center. Upstream Heroes are farmers who do an outstanding job of managing nutrients so they can’t escape into local water bodies or all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
"During a drought, our county’s average corn yield was 65 bu. per acre," Bonnell says. "My average pushed 165 bu." Omitting tillage prevented the escape of moisture from the soil at planting time, he believes; and no-till and cover crops increased the soil’s organic matter content, which also increased water-holding capacity.
In average growing seasons, corn yields on Bonnell’s rolling, high-clay soils range from 155 bu. to 170 bu. per acre. With excellent weather, they reach 190 bu. Those yields come from 152 lb. of nitrogen fertilizer per acre (300 lb. per acre of 46-0-0 urea and 125 lb. of 11-52-0 starter).
"In 2012, on some fields, I’m going to cut back to 115 lb. to 120 lb. per acre of applied nitrogen," says Bonnell, who grows 300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.
Attending a no-till conference more than a decade ago led Bonnell to park his tillage tools. Knowledgeable advisers helped him make the transition.
"An experienced no-till farmer told me no-till helped him farm 1,800 acres all by himself," Bonnell says. "After I talked to some others, the no-till concept came together for me."
During the conversion, Bonnell’s yields held steady. Reduced fuel usage convinced him he was on the right track. His advisers tipped him to the benefits of cover crops, so he adopted both practices at once. He believes cover crops aided his switch to no-till by penetrating old tillage pans and improving soil structure.
Bonnell’s standby cover crops are annual ryegrass and cereal rye, in combination with others. He uses annual ryegrass for plantings until Oct. 1, and cereal rye for later seedings. Annual ryegrass mixtures are planted after wheat (Bonnell grows 30 acres a year) and soybeans, and cereal rye follows corn.
"My No. 1 favorite cover crop is annual ryegrass," Bonnell says. "I love what it does underground, rooting deeply and breaking up hardpans. But I love to try new things."
Cover crops Bonnell mixes with annual ryegrass or cereal rye include crimson clover, alsike clover, mammoth red clover, cowpeas, dwarf Essex rape, Austrian winter peas and several kinds of cover crop radishes. He plans to test sunflowers, forage oats and sudangrass in the near future.
For Bonnell, cover crops are a continual learning experience. "I like to plant strips of different mixtures across a field and study the results," he says.
|Among Larry Bonnell’s cover crops are several types of radishes and annual ryegrass.
Fit covers to your farm. Don’t assume anyone else’s cover crop recipe is ideal for your farm, Bonnell cautions. "You have to learn what each one does in your climate and conditions," he says. For example, annual ryegrass planted after wheat harvest works for Bonnell, but, farther south, annual ryegrass planted in July could go to seed in the fall, which is not desirable.
- January 2012