It’s All About Getting Your Fertility Right

“Profitability.” That’s the most important thing Midwestern BioAg has brought to the Fairibault, MN farming operation of Bryan and Tammy Lips, says Bryan. Balanced soils, good fertility, and diverse rotations including cover crops and green manure crops are among the biological farming tools Bryan has been using for the past eight years on his 450 acres. He raises corn, oats, and alfalfa on a mixture of owned and rented land, with about half of the acres farmed conventionally and half certified organic. He raises some beef cattle and recently added a few hogs for local sale.

But whatever crops you grow, or whatever your farming style, “It’s all about getting your fertility right,” Bryan says. Balanced soils aid not just in yield and quality, but in weed and pest control, he’s observed. And all of those things make positive contributions to a farmer’s bottom line.

Even in challenging years, like the summer of 2013, good biological soils still produce well. Bryan relates the story of one of his organic fields that had been in alfalfa for three years. He plowed down the foot tall alfalfa and planted on June 4 (a late date due to Minnesota’s very wet spring). Despite the cool summer, that field yielded 190 bu/acre after dry down.

 

“It’s all about getting your fertility right,” Bryan says.

 

Another of his hay fields was damaged by winter kill, a common occurrence last year in his area, and required a change in plans. Bryan took off a crop of hay, then plowed down the poor stand around the first of August. Next, he “threw the kitchen sink at it,” putting in a cover crop mixture of peas, oats, winter rye, crimson clover and radishes. Bryan then pastured 40 head of beef cattle on the field from September 1 until December 1, so that the land got the benefit of the manure along with an application of chicken manure pellets.  This spring he’ll run the field cultivator over the ground twice, a practice he likes because it’s kind to the soil, doesn’t tear up the land, and limits wind and water erosion.  “It was an incredible experiment,” he says enthusiastically of this ground, and is looking forward to this year’s crop. “I’m really excited to see what that field is going to do.”

Rotations

Small grains are an important part of Bryan’s rotation. One example of a rotation he has used is to sow oats in the spring as a cash crop, under seeded with a crop of alfalfa. “You don’t need a lot of fertility for oats,” he reminds. He likes to leave the straw on the field after harvesting the grain, but Bryan notes that it’s also an in-demand crop as well. He may also get a cutting of alfalfa off the new stand. The following two years it’s a hay field. In the fourth year, Bryan plows down the alfalfa as a green manure crop for the many benefits it provides, including, but certainly not limited to, nitrogen. Following that green manure crop, “It’s the nicest, most beautiful soil you’ve seen. It’s like walking in cotton.” Bryan then grows a year or two of corn before another crop of oats, under seeded with alfalfa, clover, radishes or turnips as a green manure crop. He prefers to have cover crops on soils over the winter. “You can’t imagine how good that is for the soil.”

Fertilizers 

Bryan uses Midwestern BioAg fertilizer and OrganiCal on his organic hay fields. “That makes hay!” MBA starter fertilizers are also applied to his corn acres. MBA’s molasses based fertilizers are a recent addition. Seeing excellent results last year, he’ll be putting TerraFed on all his acres in 2014. “Every plant grows,” he observed. “It gets the biological ‘magic’ working. The soil is warmed up and it gives that burst of sugar” to get the crop off to a fast start. He’s also going to apply TerraFed to his hay fields this summer, as well. “Alfalfa just loves that sugar.”

Weed control
Bryan sprays his conventional acres, and cultivates his organic ground. Weeds, however, aren’t a big worry. “Get your fertility in order and you’ll have less weed problems,” is his experience. “Balance that soil…and there’ll be less weed pressure, and they’ll be easier to control.”

Technology
Bryan uses guidance on his tractors and has also recently started using grid sampling on his farming operation. He gives both an enthusiastic thumbs up. “It’s an up and coming thing,” he says of the grid sampling. “You can correct your soil in the most efficient and economical way.” The mapping “pays for itself by putting the fertility where it needs to be. Put (input dollars) where it’s needed and don’t waste it. That’s the way to go.”Bryan and Tammy work with consultant Mike Lovlien, and appreciate the efforts Mike and Midwestern BioAg make to educate farmers about the practices and principles of biological farming. Bryan “follows the BioAg program,” says Mike, adapting to changing situations, investing in equipment to get the job done, and willing to take on new technologies. “He is very progressive and a good manager.” Most of all, Bryan works to improve his soils with a goal of achieving optimal soil balance, and in doing so, has made his farm profitable and successful.