When Rulon Enterprises was selected as the national winner of the 2012 Conservation Legacy Award, Rodney and his cousins Roy and Ken were just beginning to understand soil health. Now, Rodney says, building healthy soil is a primary goal; everything they do is geared toward producing healthier soils, because everything works better with healthy soils.
Comfortable with their decision that no-till, cover crops, and sound drainage are keys to sustainable, higher yields through healthier soils, the Rulon family of Arcadia, Indiana is now concentrating on fine-tuning the management needed to get the most out of those practices.
“Early on, in the first five years or so, it was tough,” Rodney Rulon says. “We had to figure out fertility and tight soils and a lot of other things with no-till. But now, we’ve been 100 percent no-till for some time and we’re better at those things; we still see time savings and lower production costs from a minimum amount of horsepower per acre. What we’ve invested in more recently, and what we’re seeing the most benefit from now, is cover crops and more drainage.”
Since 2012, Roy’s two sons, Nick and Neal, have joined the family operation as partners, and Rulon Enterprises has taken on more land. The Rulons have also hired Purdue graduate Stephen Boyer as a farm management trainee and to help with the growing amount of data management and research they are doing. Cover crop use has expanded to more than 90 percent of the 6,000-plus acres of corn and soybeans farmed.
Cover crops always better
The Rulons have kept close records on no-till and cover crops, including more than ten years of cover crop comparison data from cooperative studies with Purdue University. “The most important takeaway from years of no-till side-by-side plots comparing cover crops to no cover crops on our farm is that cover crops are always better,” Rodney says. “Some cover crops do better than others, but each year going forward we’ve seen a yield advantage to using cover crops, and that advantage has been growing over time.”
Corn yields ranged from 90 bu/ac to 300 bu/ac five years ago, but Rodney says that bottom end has come up to more like 100 to 110 bu/ac with cover crops use over more time.
Managing new land
With years of experience in both no-till and cover crops, the Rulons don’t worry about potential problems like termination that new cover croppers fear. “For one thing, our soil is more resilient,” Rodney says. “Our better soils improve even more quickly over time, and we think we can make bigger changes faster. But even when we bring new land into the operation that’s been tilled without cover crops, we’re confident of our system. We can be more aggressive with cover crops.” The Rulons use a 4-way mix of oats, radish, clover and rapeseed on soybean stubble; the preferred choice following corn is cereal rye.
“It’s so much easier today than it was five to ten years ago to take a farm into no-till,” Rodney says. “Our first step is to fix drainage problems, because that water and air mix in the soil has to be managed for everything else to work. We’re working towards pattern tiling everything. Then we want to use no-till and cover crops in that first year if possible, and begin to balance fertility. We understand the pieces involved much better now.”
At the top of the list of goals for the new land, as it is for all their land, is soil health. “We’ve seen organic matter increase by more than a percent, and seen differences in bulk density and soil structure. We can tell the soil is improving just by walking across it,” Rodney says. “We’re seeing and understanding the interactions in the soil better all the time.”