Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
Lee Thompson, 52, has made gutsy decisions on his farm. He and his brother Rick decided to sell the dairy herd four years ago.
He’s also made some easy decisions. Since he started working with his son-in-law Dan Coffman as his agronomist three years ago, Lee has tried lots of small experiments, incremental changes, to try to improve yield and return on the farm in Nicollet, Minn. The farm has been in the family for generations, and recently earned its ‘century farm’ designation, so they want to do what they can to keep the land productive and healthy.
Now, with the help of a Conservation Innovation grant from the Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA), Lee and Dan are hoping to turn a simple cultivator bar into a tool that will help the environment, and improve returns for the farm.
By welding a granular seeder and a flow meter onto a cultivator bar, Coffman will create a piece of equipment that can plant a cover crop seed mixture between the rows of foot-tall corn while at the same time making a side-dress application of nitrogen fertilizer that can feed the young corn plants.
“There have been a fair number of years in Lee’s career, and you could probably safely say this about farmers in general, you put your nitrogen on in the fall, or as a pre-plant application (in spring), and come June everybody’s got yellow (nutrient deficient) corn because of all the spring rains,” Coffman said. “Around here, 2013 was a great example, and even 2014, we had the heavy rains early on, and that tends to leach out our nitrogen, because the nitrogen is a mobile nutrient in the soil. That’s a concern from Lee’s standpoint, as a farmer, just seeing his fertilizer investment get washed away. And from an environmental standpoint that’s not good.”
Many farmers are now recognizing the benefits of breaking up the feeding of the crop into several smaller applications that add up to the same or even a little less nitrogen. The scale and speed of planting make split applications more feasible than they ever were before.
“Split applications is a topic of discussion in almost all the farm magazines now,” Thompson said. “Splitting the nitrogen is the big thing. You combine it with tissue testing, going out and sampling the corn leaf so that you can tell, instead of guessing, if nitrogen is needed and how much. It’s better for the environment. It’s better for your checkbook. To complete the picture you put in cover crops that can take up any excess nitrogen so that it doesn’t get into the lakes. When the covers breakdown it adds organic matter and releases nitrogen the crop can use.”
The idea behind using a simple, popular piece of farm equipment in their experiment is being done with an eye to the future.
“We chose a cultivator bar because basically every farm has a cultivator sitting in their shed, or in the grove,” Coffman says. “So if this system works, more farmers might be apt to adopt it, just because they have part of the equipment right there on the farm close to hand.”
According to Coffman, they will use a 60-acre field so they can do a side-by-side comparison. Thirty acres will be planted and tended in the same fashion that Thompson has done for a number of years, while on the other thirty they will do the split application of nitrogen fertilizer and the cover crops.
Being a good land steward is very important to Thompson, who has loved working outdoors all his life, and enjoys wilderness recreation: “My wife’s a big horse enthusiast, so we go out horse camping at Fort Ridgley State Park and places like Zumbro Bottoms and Forestville Park, a really pretty place down by the Iowa border…we’ve got to all work together to keep these places healthy and beautiful so we can enjoy them for a long time to come.”