corn planted in covers.
A thick mat of biomass between corn rows will hold down weeds, improve water holding capacity and recycle nutrients to corn roots.

Farm transition game: Agronomics!

Cropping evolution makes farm and fields healthier, more productive

Think Different

Klemp Farms have embraced change that improves productivity, cuts costs and improves profits by following a few simple rules:

  •      If it's not working, try something different. Aware soils were degrading, the Klemps reduced tillage, added cover crops and focused manure applications and have seen positive changes in organic matter, CEC and infiltration.
  •      Speak the language your partner(s) understands, if they are visual, show them. Rather than argue for change, Andy Klemp advocates with field plots that demonstrate benefits, a practice his father Bob appreciates.
  •      Take care of your soil and it takes care of you. While concentrating on improving their soils, the Klemps' need for fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide inputs has fallen, as have costs.
  •       People are watching. Changing their farming operation is attracting attention and land from prospective landlords who like what they see the Klemps doing.

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 Until ten years ago, Klemp Farms was conventional. Conventional corn, conventional tillage and minimal change from year to year. In the last decade that has changed, and the farm business and the farm fields in northwest Indiana are healthier, more productive and more resilient. Andy Klemp gives a lot of credit to his father Bob, who he describes as a visual person.

"He needs to see the benefits in the field," says Klemp. "I realized there was value in no-till and convinced my dad we should try it. In 2008 we no-tilled 15 acres, and that opened the door for my dad. Within two years we had eliminated heavy tillage in favor of vertical tillage and an in-line ripper."

 

Change seed, increase profits

That was just the beginning. In the years since, they went from continuous conventional (traited) corn to a mix of seed corn, conventional corn, soybeans and non-GMO corn on their farm near Wheatfield, Ind. More recently the seed corn business went away, and non-GMO acreage increased to about 90 percent of their corn acres.

"Planting non-GMO corn increased our income with premiums and lowered our seed costs," says Klemp. "We've also transitioned to less herbicide and insecticide use, less fertilizer and more organic and natural fertilizer use, including increased use of manures."

A big part of the transition has been a move to cover crops. Klemp liked the severely reduced tillage but was seeing increased shallow compaction. He also suspected less carbon was being deposited in the soil and more was lost to the atmosphere. Research into cover crops suggested that could help on all counts. Like with no-till, the Klemps started small with 200 acres of annual ryegrass and radish after seed corn was harvested.

"We watched carefully and dug a soil pit," recalls Klemp. "There were roots 30 inches deep from six-inch-tall annual ryegrass. We saw more worms than ever before. That's when things started moving fast."

Radish and rye planted at harvest are holding nutrients, building organic matter and eliminating no-till related shallow compaction.

 

Saw soil health benefits

Soil health became the focus. Cover crop acres increased to 1,000 acres and now stand at 2,500 of the 4,000 acres that Klemp, his father, brother Kevin, uncle Phil and full-time employee Josh Rushmore now farm. "We cover as many acres as we can each year," he says. "Some farms get a winter crop every year, and others get it only certain years."

Annual rye is Klemp's standby, put out anytime they can, often combined with barley, triticale, oats or cereal rye. If the covers go in early enough they may include radish or some clover. He finds species diversity outweighs plant height.

"What you see above ground doesn't reflect the whole picture of the great value these winter crops bring," says Klemp. "A radish a few inches tall can have a tuber a foot long."

Which fields get the covers depends on need. Klemp uses them and manure as a soil-building tool. He notes that while the family has always raised hogs, they only produce enough manure for about 400 acres. A large dairy in the area provides enough for an additional 2,000 acres. Those are the acres that get the covers.

 

Manure and cover crops

"The cover crops hold onto fall applied nutrients and cycle applied nutrients up and down in the soil profile," he says. "They build soil health and organic matter."

Newly added fields are a focus for use of manure and cover crops. Klemp calls it jump-starting nutrient availability and soil biology. For the past three years the soil building tools have also been aimed at the farm's lighter soils, in particular sand hills. Results could be seen the first year and continued, most noticeably, in the top four inches.

"The color changed, and organic matter increased," says Klemp. "We went from manure being a waste to get rid of, to realizing its impact on soil biology, organic matter and nutrient value."

Crop placement is another tool. While the better ground and the farm's 1,500 irrigated acres are usually devoted to corn-on-corn, it is also used to add organic matter and build carbon where needed. Klemp tries to rotate two years of corn with a year of soybeans, but he follows no hard and fast rule.

"We need to make the numbers work for us, but also for what the land needs," he says. "On lighter soils that don't produce corn as well, we go corn every other year and try to build the soils with manure and cover crops."

 

As the Klemps focus manure applications and cover crops on sand hills, they are seeing a visual shift in the soil as organic matter and microbial life build in the upper layers and change percolates downward, along with root systems.

Better soils boost bean yields

Klemp recalls when rotating to soybeans wasn't a good option. Prior to reducing tillage and adding cover crops, soybean yields averaged around 40 bushels per acre. With healthier soils, average yields are now in the 55 to 60-bushel range.

When they added 130 certified organic acres to the mix three years ago, things changed again. Although it meant more tillage on those acres, including digging down cover crops of hairy vetch and cereal rye and cultivation for weed control, they liked what they saw in inputs and returns. They are now in the process of transitioning up to 1,000 acres to organic and this year will plant soybeans green then roll and crimp cereal rye. If it works well, they will try it in non-organic acres as well. Other practices have made the crossover as well, including reducing herbicide passes.

"On our non-organic acres, we use a burndown and then after planting come in with a one-pass herbicide," says Klemp. "We've used Corvus the past couple years and are going with TripleFlex. We'll also cultivate while sidedressing to take out the last flush of weeds."

Klemp notes a number of herbicide resistant weeds showing up in the area, including Palmer amaranth, marestail, pigweed and waterhemp. He sees them as a tool in their own way. "Weeds are there for a reason, to balance the soil," he says. "You can see a correlation between weeds and nutrient deficiencies. Cover crops help keep everything in balance and choke out the weeds."

 

Anhydrous, potash no more

Nutrient management is one of Klemp's biggest challenges and another area of change. Anhydrous ammonia is gone from the farm, as is potash. He addresses plant needs with a cocktail mix of nutrients, some of it borrowed from the organic side of the operation. In-furrow treatments have changed from a low-salt 8-18-4 to adding humates, micronutrients and seaweed. Today they use the latter products without the NPK mix, but with fish and molasses and some zinc where needed. Corn also gets a mix of 28% and 10-34-0 with a couple of gallons of potassium thiosulfate and ammonium thiosulfate over the top of the row, along with some humates to stabilize and buffer. They sidedress with a second application of 28%, a sulfur product with a humate, a fish product and some molasses.

"Ten years ago, we had a very basic program, stuck in the same rut with soils degrading," he says. "That has all changed, and we are seeing the response in our soils and our crops. You can see the difference in our farms and those across the road where the sand blows and looks whiter every year. Others are noticing. We have landlords who came to us because they liked what we were doing. They like seeing fields that are green during more than just the summer."

 

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