Derek Martin steps off a tractor and walks across rich, black soil teeming with life. He moves out of the field and passes between machine shed doors, pulls up a stool beside a vat filled with a biological brew and peers into the lens tube of a microscope. With the conviction of a soil health evangelist, Martin, alongside his brother, Doug, and father, Jeff, has transformed a 6,000-acre operation from an input-guzzling leviathan to a profit-per-acre force.
“Over the last 100 years our soils have been fed a strict, constant diet of NPK,” he explains. “That’s like a human eating a Big Mac over and over and expecting to be healthy.”
Across his central Illinois farm, Martin replaced inputs with fervent nutrient management, biologicals and cover crops. The results, according to Martin, include a tide of benchmark changes in soil aggregation that carry tremendous sustainability benefits.
However, of more immediate significance is a booster shot in the pocketbook. “Money matters in the end. We now spend less on our farm, yet have either maintained or increased yield everywhere,” he says.
In 2013, Martin began using cover crops (tillage radish out of the gate) and biologicals, with guidance from agronomist Brad Hobrock, co-owner of AgriBio Systems. Six years later, Martin has cereal rye, annual rye, crimson clover, buckwheat, oats, radish and rape on 60% of his ground. He uses biologicals on 100% of his land. “We broadcast after planting and in the fall to break down residue, capture nutrients and hold them until the following spring,” he says.
Synthetic applications of potassium and phosphorus have decreased, ranging from significant reductions to complete elimination. “By increasing soil biology through microbials and covers, soil biology has improved, which is capturing and converting readily available nutrients,” he says.
“Now, we spend our money on ignored nutrients like magnesium, boron, manganese and sulfur to concentrate on improved photosynthesis and sugar production,” Martin explains. “Our soil aggregation has improved drastically.”
A troublesome 40-acre field is emblematic of the transformation. In the middle of the field, 5 acres are designated for the Wetlands Reserve Program and can’t be tiled. In 2016, Martin began cover crop and biological management on the ground. “This was our worst ground—beyond awful. Now it’s some of our best ground. It stands up to wet springs and heavy rains,” he says.
Martin applies low rates of anhydrous in the fall with a strip-till or no-till bar, but intends to transition away from the nitrogen source and considers it “detrimental to soil biology.” Over the past three years, he has decreased nitrogen use to roughly 0.7 units per bushel across the operation. He has also eliminated the use of nitrogen inhibitors.
In fall 2017, he experimented with a 20-acre field, applying anhydrous strips on half of it, and spraying 28% on the other half. A year later, both sides yielded the same. “We know if our soil is healthy, it should hold any nitrogen source,” Martin says. “We didn’t lose any nitrogen, and through soil biology, we converted enough nitrogen from the atmosphere to carry over the crop.”
The Martins’ success story, Hobrock says, is based on a five-year transition to a stable and aggregate soil structure, allowing for efficient water infiltration.
Essentially, Martin operates a science lab, examining fungi and soil samples under the microscope and making biological brews as a dealer for AgriBio Systems. This spring, he intends to apply farm-made biologicals in-furrow for the first time.
In 2018, Martin planted naked seed on 100% of his soybean acreage—no conventional fungicide or insecticide seed treatments. “We added a biological (BioLaunch), and had zero problems,” he says.
Martin is also walking away from particular chemicals and projects 2019 as his last season to use glyphosate. “It has nothing to do with human health, and entirely to do with soil health because of how it remains in the soil,” he says.
“We plant cereal rye or annual rye ahead of beans. Our mat was so thick we almost got away with no additional chemical pass last year. This time we’ll plant in green and then spray behind the planter to eliminate a second herbicide pass,” Martin adds.
Adam York, 38, grows corn and soybeans on 10,000 acres in Jacksonville, Ill., alongside his brother, Nick, and uncle, Jeff, on soils ranging from black to sandy to heavy gumbo. He began tinkering with soil biology in 2012, starting with a few test plots.
“We were like any conventional farm and threw the kitchen sink at our fields: high rates of fertilizer with DAP and potash, high amounts of anhydrous, heavy insecticides, full seed treatments, triple-stacked corn and you-name-it. If we heard someone preaching yield, we spent the money,” York says.
Along came the unexpected: The soil health field trials worked. York began an intensive regime of self-education on biologicals, immersing himself and several fields in the management practice, and eventual co-ownership of AgriBio Systems. When 2014 arrived, along with perfect weather, York threw in the towel on conventional agriculture. His fields churned out strong yields that year—250 bu. per acre—yet the numbers only strengthened his resolve.
In 2015, York went full-bore with a soil health strategy, applying a compost extract (Bio-Max) in-furrow at planting. He also applied Bio-Max in-season during irrigation and after harvest as a digester to break down residue. (York’s organic matter on prairie soils ranges between 2% to 3% and he aims to double the percentage in three years .)
In addition, he eliminated dry fertilizer, dumped insecticides and glyphosate, backed off fungicides, reduced nitrogen rates and went big with cover crops. He also planted naked soybeans and non-traited corn.
“I was sick of throwing Band-aids at problems. I thought some of this was snake oil when we first started but was proven wrong in my own fields,” he says.
Central to the improvement, York says, is a significant reduction in inputs. “We’re not giving up even a bit in yield and making substantial gains. Our inputs drop while yields remain or rise, and that’s where you find profit,” he adds.
Going forward, York intends to blanket his acreage with cover crops, in conjunction with biologicals. Bottom line: He wants something living on his soil year-round.
As Martin builds on his soil health education, what lessons await? Possibly interseeding cover crops, and planting corn into green clover, in order to return and kill with one pass. In 2016, Martin accidently left a skip after spraying clover in corn at V5. The patch with clover yielded 10 bu. to 15 bu. better than the rest of the field. “I want to fine-tune those kinds of things and find out what opportunities might be in front of us,” he says.
For more details on how these farmers use biologicals and cover crops to transform soil health, visit bit.ly/focus-on-soil-health