Fire in the Belly

March 26, 2018 09:15 AM
Mauck Farms

Jason Mauck unleashes an easy laugh, grips a wood and rips a screamer down a manicured, backyard fairway. The Indiana farmer is walking his own piece of heaven, 18 holes and three greens spread across 15 acres of former pasture. When golfing or spending time with his wife and two young sons, Mauck is guided by angels—but when it’s time to work farmland, the devil drives.

An apostle of relay cropping, Mauck, 37, backs his words between the rows, interplanting cash and cover crops in Constant Canopy, a self-devised agricultural symphony. One middle at a time, the maverick grower is uncovering clues and running toward greater farming efficiency.
Beside his uncles, cousins and grandfather, Mauck works 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat and raises 25,000 hogs per year in the east-central section of the Hoosier State.

He is blessed with “monkey dirt,” a heavy clay that often runs 15' to 25' deep. It’s soft, relatively forgiving and drinks roughly 35" of rain per year but has been worked hard over the years—too hard, according to Mauck.

With his perennially-minded landscaping background, Mauck chafes at the prospect of working fields to brown in the fall and not seeing green until May. In addition, he sees expansive weed pressure powered by residual nitrogen as a constant thorn.

His laboratory is a 60-acre spread, and he hopes to extend intercropping across his entire farm. Mauck aims to use wheat and cover crops as a sink to exhaust ammonia and manure, while consistently expanding the width of the wheat rows. “One seed will tiller exponentially if its got plenty of sunlight to feed on with manure placed underneath,” he says.

In 2016, he expanded from 30" to 37.5" rows and gained a complete canopy with wheat and cover crops (tillage radishes and oats). He followed in March with soybeans, but the wheat grew quickly and the rows closed, throwing shade on soybeans. Mauck used a plant growth regulator (PGR) to straighten the wheat, allowing sunlight to reach the soybeans. He further expanded to 60" rows to get away from using PGR and still allow room for soybeans.

To remedy the growth rate problem, Mauck devised his own contraption to place wheat directly above manure and avoid a muddy mess.
“Instead of using a double disk opener, I drop wheat seed into soil with a strip till unit essentially employing two disks to make a berm,” he describes.

Mauck uses a deflector to place seed into fluid soil at ½" to 2" deep. The upwelling moisture of the manure produces a seed coddling effect, and the technique cuts manure rates in half, Mauck says. Even more significantly, he says the wheat seeding rate drops by approximately 80%, and soybeans are seeded at 120,000—less than half the rate of traditional double crop soybeans after wheat.

Mauck spends $12 to $15 per acre on wheat seed. A typical wheat field in Delaware County is planted at close to 3 bu. per acre, but Mauck plants at 0.5 bu. per acre: “The big value is forcing the plant to multiply through placement of manure by capturing nitrogen. I’m bottling energy.”

In addition to seed savings, Mauck is sitting on millions of gallons of manure. When he grows 60-bu. to 80-bu. wheat and achieves the same yield on intercropped soybeans, his overall revenue is stronger than high-bushel corn.

The field lessons are bringing concrete results, including changing the shape of wheat growth, Mauck says. “I can get similar sun capture to a monocrop field, and that’s part of where added revenue comes from. There is no economic reason for me to put nitrogen on wheat in the spring,” he adds.

Mauck uses covers, soybeans and wheat, each with distinct growing seasons, to maximize sunlight capture. It’s a simplified version of his landscaping business where he might start with daffodils and end with kale but a different plant blooms each month for the majority of the year.

“All in all, we extend the growing season exponentially if we speed growth during the cool fall with precision manure placement, and the crops wake much easier in the spring with decomposing cover crops. Plus, I can plant earlier because the foliage makes the soil temperature less variable,” Mauck notes.

Stan Clamme, owner of Stan Clamme Pioneer Seed and Cattle Sales in Hartford, Ind., says Mauck consistently finds new paths of innovation: “Jason’s farming ability and drive are clear at the top. He’s always on the cutting edge, and brings past and future together in his fields.”

As the consummate tinkerer, Mauck never stops probing. In 2017, he grew a garden corn plant with 31 ears to show how sunlight drives yield.

The constant flood of ideas might be a burden for some, but Mauck welcomes the flow. “I can’t stop and I don’t want to stop all the crop ideas bouncing through my head,” he says. “No farmer likes to mess up, but there is a part of me looking forward to my next mistake in the field. Why? Because I’ll learn from it and get better the next time.”

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