Focusing on Efficiency

Needing more hay for his beef cattle, northwestern Illinois beef producer Randy Adolph was ready for a different approach. “I wasn’t happy with what I was currently doing and wanted to try something new,” said Randy.

Four years later, he’s a lot happier with his fields — his alfalfa yields are up to 7 tons from the 5 he was getting back in 2012.

That was when he learned about Bio-Cal® from his cousin, Midwestern BioAg Certified Crop Advisor Ben Adolph. Over the past four years, Ben and Randy have worked hard to improve Randy’s yields and soils. Today, Randy uses the full Midwestern BioAg fertility program.

“When it comes to the crops, I let Ben make the decisions. As long as he can support the reasoning behind his recommendations, we go with it,” said Randy. “I set the budget and yield goals, and let him make the recommendations from there.”

Managing Variability

Randy’s 2,800 acres touch three northwestern Illinois counties. Soil and land types vary greatly — a challenge Ben addresses with fertilizer blends designed specifically for each soil type. “In the past four years, we’ve seen a huge improvement in his soil structure,” remarked Ben. “Randy’s field-to-field variability is incredibly high. After looking at his soil tests, it was clear his fields needed a certain approach that they weren’t getting.”

“With BioAg products, I’m getting a higher return in the end,” said Randy. “They are better for the soil, better for the environment and better for my bottom line.”

“Randy’s crop health and yields have really improved,” said Ben. “Randy’s ground had a lot of fertility, but nutrients were tied-up in the soil. Applying calcium helped improve plant uptake of other nutrients. We attribute a lot of the success seen on his farm to Bio-Cal.”

Cover Crop Forages

With crop yields on the rise, Randy has more time to focus his attention on his herd of 550 Red Angus and Red Angus Commercial beef cattle. That includes incorporating cover crops into his rotation as a grazing crop. “We plant late-season cover crops following wheat in July,” said Randy. “Once established, it provides at least an additional month of grazing in the fall.”

“Randy is saving money with his cover crop program,” said Ben. “We purchase and spread the seed for less than $2,000. He is saving multiple times that by grazing his bred heifers on that ground, since they would otherwise be eating hay.”

Last year’s grazing mix included turnip, rape, clover and millet. “When certain grasses freeze, they can accumulate prussic acid. We avoid those grass varieties so the cattle can graze later into the season,” said Ben.

After the fall grazing season is over, Randy applies manure and chisel plows to help fight soil compaction from late fall grazing. “You couldn’t raise a crop the next year if you didn’t,” said Randy.

Crops & Fertilizer

“Our crop rotations depend on field and soil type. We don’t typically do more than two years of corn in one field,” said Randy. “Both soybeans and wheat are one-year rotations.” Alfalfa stands stay in production for about four to six years.

Randy uses a maximum of 160 units of purchased nitrogen per year. “Dry fertilizer application rates range from 12 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre, depending on the crop,” said Ben.

Randy typically bulk spreads his fertilizer, but has recently started using variable rate technology (VRT). “We are integrating more technology, and have started working with the NRCS to develop a nutrient management plan,” said Randy.

“Our goal is to produce as high of yields as we can, profitably,” said Ben. “We focus on margins first. Midwestern BioAg’s fertilizer blends help keep nutrients in the field all season. Nutrient loss erodes profits, so limiting it is key.”

Improving Forage Quality & Yield

“I started using Bio-Cal in my fields with the goal to reduce total acres in hay without lowering tonnage,” said Randy. “So far, we’ve seen an increase from 5 to 7 tons per acre. I can see our end goal coming, but it’s just going to take some time.”

“We apply Bio-Cal to Randy’s hay ground regularly. Any fields that Randy uses for fall grazing receive Bio-Cal to help loosen the soil and prevent compaction the following season. Row-crop acres receive Bio-Cal as needed — about every three years,” said Ben.

“Since using Bio-Cal, my hay quality is better,” said Randy. Randy’s forages are more mineralized, helping keep his beef herd healthy and productive.

Randy’s neighbors have noticed. “My neighbor baled some of my third crop hay for me last year,” said Randy. “He said he didn’t know what I did to my fields, but it was the best hay he’s ever mowed.”

 

“So far, we’ve seen an increase from 5 to 7 tons per acre. I can see our end goal coming, but it’s just going to take some time.”

 

Randy has produced some of the best crops he’s ever had in the past few years. “Our corn yields have gone up each year since using BioAg,” said Randy. “If you get a 150-bushel average in our area, you better take it. We have a lot of rock, clay and hills. Our average yield last year was 190 bushels per acre, despite the really wet weather we had in Illinois.”

Results

Randy’s yields are up and he has the mapping records to prove it. “I’ve seen the benefits,” said Randy. “My bottom line has improved because of my yield boosts. If I can see a profit in my bottom line, that’s all that matters.”

If there’s one thing Randy has learned throughout this process, it’s to be open to suggestions and be open to change.

“I’ve had neighbors doing the same thing for 20 years, and they cannot figure out why they aren’t seeing changes,” said Randy. “Sometimes you have to mix things up a little.”

“Randy’s farm has improved significantly in two key areas: nutrient management and soil structure,” said Ben. “Those are the two major components to our success.”

Start Strong, Finish Strong

You never want your crop to have a bad day, said Alan Kauffman, Ohio-based Midwestern BioAg sales consultant. “Marathon runners don’t skip breakfast the day of a big race. That’s why we put down starter fertilizer in the spring — to get those plants off to a strong start.”

Midwestern BioAg scientist Bill Petersen agrees. “Our 2015 studies with Dr. Fred Below of the University of Illinois looked at early-season advantages of starter application. In the study, we added L-CBF BOOST™ and 10-34-0 to corn. Advantages of applying starter fertilizer were measurable and visually obvious,” noted Petersen. “I think Dr. Below says it best: Start strong, stay strong, finish strong.”

Years of research support Dr. Below’s findings that applying starters in the seedling and early vegetative stage of development encourages strong starts. “It’s well documented that if you have two plants side by side and one plant is one or two leaf stages behind the other, the plant left behind never catches up,” said Kauffman. “There’s no way to finish strong if you don’t start strong.”

Improving Early Season Uptake

Starter fertilizer ensures new seedlings have access to ample nutrients early in the season. “This is especially important in cool soils,” said Kauffman. In early spring, soil biological activity and nutrient availability is limited. “Even in high-testing soils, early season nutrient availability may be lower than expected. When roots are in the early development stages, they can’t reach the nutrients they need. Starter helps bridge this gap.”

“I recommend ammonium sulfate as a nitrogen source in dry starters for two main reasons,” said Kauffman. “When the ammonium form of nitrogen is used, it acidifies soil around the seed bed and increases phosphorous uptake. It also provides sulfate sulfur, which supports plant growth and health.”

Because starters are placed near the seed, fertilizer quality must be closely evaluated to reduce chances of plant damage. “Starters with high salt indexes can harm early root growth and reduce nutrient uptake. At Midwestern BioAg, our blends swap out commercial-grade nutrients for high-quality ingredients.”

As the salt index of fertilizer increases, the potential for seed injury also increases. “Growers on dry or sandy soils must be especially careful,” said Kauffman. “The likelihood of injury from salts increases on that type of ground.”

Balance, Concentration & Recovery

Starter fertilizers are designed to support early season growth, but not necessarily season-long performance. “In the big picture, applying basic starter fertilizer is not a season-long fertility plan,” said Kauffman. “It’s giving plants the best opportunity at a good start. The V5 to V8 growth stage for corn and beans is very important. Development during these stages directly impacts yield.”

Kauffman recommends applying dry fertilizer before or at planting. “We want to put down a balanced fertilizer blend that contains soluble and slow-release nutrients. This is when we can address yield-limiting factors like calcium and sulfur deficiencies. We can address nutrient deficiencies with dry starters, but have fewer options with liquid products.”

“I’d like to apply both a liquid pop-up and a dry starter at planting, but most farms do not have that capability,” said Kauffman. “For most customers, I recommend bulk-spreading dry fertilizer followed by L-CBF at planting. Nutrients are more soluble in liquid, which is ideal for young roots.”

Midwestern BioAg’s high-quality fertilizer ingredients give producers more flexibility at planting. Because ingredients are non-harmful to young plants, growers can go beyond a basic starter and put down a complete, balanced fertilizer without fear of plant burn. This gives farmers all the benefits of a starter fertilizer in the spring, in addition to the season-long benefits of a balanced Midwestern BioAg blend.

“We can recommend a blend to support early season growth, as well as season-long performance. With the right planter set up, this can eliminate an extra pass on the field, and help reduce compaction overall,” said Kauffman.

Next Steps

In addition to early season growth, starters provide many season-long benefits. These include quicker canopy cover, lower moisture at harvest (for corn), less weed competition and reduced soil evaporation. “For my organic producers, this is essential,” said Kauffman. “Early canopy can help shade out weeds. If the weeds are as tall as or taller than the crop, you’ve already lost the battle if you can’t use chemicals.”

Kauffman recommends closely monitoring nitrogen as the season progresses. “Split application of nitrogen is ideal,” said Kauffman. “I recommend ESN® in pre-plant applications for season-long availability, followed by L-CBF mixed with 28% or 32% as a side-dress for early season support.”

 

Starters provide many season-long benefits, including quicker canopy cover, lower moisture at harvest (for corn), less weed competition and reduced soil evaporation.

 

Because corn needs three times as much nitrogen after the V10 stage, access to late-season nitrogen is essential to support yield. “It does not take a lot of nitrogen to get things going,” said Kauffman, “but running out of nitrogen in later growth stages can lead to big yield losses.”

Finishing Strong

“The biggest factor affecting crop production is weather,” said Kauffman. “In a severe drought, there’s not a lot a grower can do to prevent yield loss. But there are a few things they can do to help keep losses to a minimum.”

By focusing on soil health, growers can improve soil water- and nutrient-holding capacity. “A good soil structure can improve plant resistance to stress factors like weather extremes and disease pressure,” said Kauffman. “Products like Bio-Cal® provide calcium to open up soil structure and help create humus — this improves soil drainage and water-holding capacity, and also helps unlock nutrients in the soil.” Improvements to structure can also increase rooting potential.

“All Midwestern BioAg products have one thing in common,” said Kauffman. “They build soil health in the long-term while supporting crop production in the short-term. If you want to give your plants a head start this season, we can help.”

Going for More

Phil Schwantz is a third-generation farmer who’s proud to be the steward of his grandfathers’ farmland. He lives on the farmstead where his paternal grandfather and father farmed and rents land from his aunt that was once farmed by his maternal grandfather.

He also feels fortunate to be working with Midwestern BioAg on a program that has created “an explosion” of earthworms on his 500 acres of tillable farmland. A leading indicator of soil health, earthworm activity can increase soil infiltration and improve water-holding capacity, help breakdown plant residues, and stimulate microbial activity, all major drivers of plant growth and productivity. Working with BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien, Schwantz focuses on improving his soil structure and providing his crops with what they need to produce top yields.
Schwantz grew up knowing the land and has been farming it since he was a young man, first with his dad and then on his own after graduating from high school in the late 1970s.

He says he’s always been competitive when it comes to farming. “If I get 200 bushels, I think we should go for 210,” he said. In his years of farming and improving the land, he has ratcheted up production incrementally. “Back in ’78, if you had 150 bushels per acre, that was considered good.”

When he began farming after high school, the county-program yield for his land was in the range of 114 to 120 bushels of corn per acre. Over the years, he’s switched from wide rows to narrow rows and went with a mostly no-till system. His ten-year average for corn production now stands at 205 bushels per acre, almost a 100 percent increase over the past 30 years.

Building Soil Capacity

Schwantz started working with Midwestern BioAg in the early 1990s after learning more about the company from a consultant. “I was always looking for something else and they were talking a little different story. I was willing to try. If we saw results then it was something we’d stick with.” Schwantz says he sees those results each year — more production per acre and less unit inputs.

Schwantz’s land has increased in organic matter and in cation exchange capacity (CEC), which is a measure of the nutrient-holding ability of the soil. “There’s no right or wrong CEC, but you need to know what it is to recommend the right fertilizer application rates,” says Lovlien.

In fall 2013, Schwantz worked with BioAg to grid sample his acres to identify nutrient deficiencies in specific locations. Using this data, he can now implement variable rate fertilizer application on his farm for optimum nutrient efficiency.

“Organic matter is increasing, CEC is rising, and yield is rising. Something’s got to be working in sync,” says Schwantz. He likes that he and Lovlien go out into the fields with a spade to look for soil life, a sign of healthy, productive ground.

Season-Long Fertility

Schwantz bulk spreads Midwestern BioAg’s dry fertilizer before planting each spring. “Last year, Phil applied 420 pounds per acre of 15-12-12-7S with high traces,” said Lovlien. “Like all our fertilizers, Phil’s blend contains high quality ingredients like ESN® and ammonium sulfate for season-long nutrient availability.”

Midwestern BioAg’s dry blends supply both NPK and a balanced supply of secondary nutrients and trace minerals. “Because yields can be limited by deficiencies of any nutrient,” said Lovlien, “overcoming yield-limiting factors on the farm starts with addressing nutrient deficiencies in the soil.”

While planting corn, Schwantz applies BioAg’s liquid carbon-based fertilizer (L-CBF) 10-14-1 at 5 gallons per acre as a pop-up starter. Schwantz has seen great results with the product and plans to apply it for the third year this spring.

About three to four days following planting, Schwantz applies liquid 28% with herbicide. “Phil applies 28% at 20 gallons per acre, or 60 units,” said Lovlien. “His dry fertilizer supplies 63 units of nitrogen. That’s 123 units of purchased nitrogen per acre — about 163 units total if we count the 40-unit credit from soybeans the previous year.”

In past years, Schwantz has planted oats as a cover crop following corn and soybeans to scavenge nutrients. “2015 was a great year for cover crops,” said Lovlien. “This fall, Phil plans to aerial seed ryegrass and radish into standing corn.”

Looking Ahead

In addition to farming his own land, Schwantz also custom-plants corn for others. He recently upgraded his planter with liquid application equipment so he can plant more acres per fill than with dry starter in the past. The planter is GPS-equipped, and Lovlien and Schwantz plan to use that function to incorporate information from grid samples. Lovlien notes that by intensively sampling fields, Schwantz can better target where fertilizer is needed and in what amounts.

 

“I want to leave the soil in better shape than when I started. I think that’s what a farmer should do.”

 

Now that there isn’t manure to haul on his farm every day, as there was in the days when he was dairy farming, Schwantz looks for different ways to manage his land. “I try to primarily no-till, which gives me more options.”

A dairy farmer until 2002, Schwantz sold his 65-cow herd when he felt he was at a crossroads of investing significant money in dairy facilities or doing something else. He decided to raise heifers for another farmer until the use of sexed semen resulted in too many heifers for his facilities. Again he was at a crossroads, trying to decide if he should invest in more livestock facilities or instead raise his own steers. Today, Schwantz rents his facilities to a beef producer.

For now, Schwantz is concentrating on his land. “I want to leave the soil in better shape than when I started. I think that’s what a farmer should do.”

____

Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

Michaels to Scientists & Policy-Makers: Look at Farm Progress

Midwestern BioAg CEO Tony Michaels told one of the most influential audiences of scientists and policy leaders in the U.S. that many of the necessary advances in agriculture were already happening on Midwestern farms.

In a keynote address to the annual meeting of the National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE), Michaels described progress at several farms currently being managed with the help of Midwestern BioAg products and services.

In each case, before touching on environmental issues, he made it clear that these farms have increased their profits. For Michaels and the BioAg team, that is always the first priority.

He described the progress on Chad Gleason’s farm (featured earlier in this newsletter), noting substantial yield gains and highlighting the societal benefits of the increase in soil organic matter on the Gleason farm.

“Soil organic matter has gone from an average of 3.27 percent to 4.59 percent,” Michaels said. “This is extraordinary. For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”

 

Yield Gains & Reduced Climate Impacts

He labeled Gary Manternach’s farm, in Monticello, Iowa, as a corn-belt archetype, saying it looks to the casual observer like so many farms across eastern Iowa — with one key exception.

“They made one big change in their practices,” Michaels said. “They changed what they put on their soil. We worked with them to apply calcium soil amendments. And we gave them balanced fertilizers to match their soil — going well beyond the standard NPK.

“Their yields have nearly doubled, and they did it by keeping their nitrogen use steady. So they’ve obviously succeeded. But there is more.” Because they kept their use of nitrogen stable, the yield increase meant they were close to cutting their nitrogen use per bushel of corn in half.

 

 

“For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, 18 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents are sequestered in the soil. It’s a significant contribution.”

 

 

“That’s a huge climate benefit,” Michaels said. “The production of synthetic nitrogen is energy intensive and comes with a high greenhouse gas burden. What they’ve done is incredible.”

And these farmers are not alone. Many BioAg customers have reduced the climate impacts associated with food grown on their farm — though many are unaware that they’ve done so.

The conference, titled “The Food, Energy & Water Nexus,” was attended by more than 1,200 scientists and policy makers. It was held in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.

Michaels shared data from 43 farms that are relatively new to the Midwestern BioAg fertility program. These farms, on average, went from 150 bushels of corn to 180, most of them gaining that increase in the first three years.

A subset of those farms had soil samples available before and after the multi-year application of Midwestern BioAg products. The average increase in soil organic matter was 0.44%, a significant leap, given that the maximum time frame was five years.

 

Challenging Policy-Makers to Incentivize Nutrient Efficiency

Michaels challenged policy-makers to start thinking more about systems approaches to their work.

He said that regulations tend to target single problems, and most products do the same. But in both cases, the problems don’t exist in isolation.

“The best solutions come from considering them in the context of the whole system,” Michaels said. “We need any new regulations to be the result of more systems thinking, and to pursue more systems outcomes.”

He said it was time to “incentivize nutrient efficiency.” That is, farmers who find ways to apply less commercial nitrogen and phosphorous should perhaps be rewarded because they are helping avoid the societal costs incurred when those nutrients are overused and run off into waterways or are released into the atmosphere.

He also challenged policy-makers to find “better ways to align the interests of landowners and renting farmers.”

“We find that some of our customers will use our products and practices on the land they own, but not on the land they rent.” Michaels said. “They figure that if they improve the quality of the land they are renting, then the rent may just go up the following year. There is little incentive for renting farmers to build soil health for the long-term when they may not have access to those lands in the very next year or two.”

Michaels suggested this issue needed additional thought and discussion.

Michaels used photographs to make sure conference participants had a better sense of farms and farming. He described the “achingly beautiful” Otter Creek Farm, run by Midwestern BioAg founder, Gary Zimmer. He showed slides of the fields at Taliesin, the Frank Lloyd Wright Farm managed with Midwestern BioAg fertility, again focusing on the beauty of a viable, healthy farm.

In conversations after the speech, Michaels ended up in several discussions ignited by the specific examples he used.

“We see farms every day that are solving these challenges — and they are making more money doing it,” Michaels said.

“Promoting the solutions that work today is one of the most important steps toward a more sustainable food supply, healthier people and a healthier planet.”

Improving Yields & Quality

The first year of using Midwestern BioAg (MBA) fertilizers led to a 15 percent yield increase in soybeans, while oats grown on soils that had used MBA fertility for multiple years saw significant gains in nutritional values, according to two studies done in concert with a large food company (LFC). In both cases, the BioAg fertility program outperformed industry-standard recommendations.

The soybean results come from the first year of a six-year study designed to analyze how Midwestern BioAg fertilizers and practices affect soil biology, crop yields and economics. Using the food company’s research plots, it will test a rotation of soybeans, oats and corn, with cover crops grown between the cash crops. The first year of the study included three treatments on soybeans in Minnesota — one control plot managed according to the LFC standard practices, and two plots managed according to the BioAg fertility program.

Plots treated with the BioAg fertility program showed both early season advantages and harvest-time gains. Color differences among the plots can be seen in the aerial photo in Figure 1. Harvest data on plant height and pod count are shown in Table 1.

 

soybean plots

soybeans Table 1

The soybean finding is particularly important in challenging economic times. Results suggest that farmers switching to the BioAg program this year could see immediate returns on their investment.

“These initial soybean results are significant,” said Midwestern BioAg scientist Dr. Maggie Phillips. “A lot of people understand the value of healthy soils and this should add to their level of confidence that our approach works. This study illustrates what a lot of our growers have seen — that there can be a sizable first-year boost.”

“We anticipate these results compounding in coming seasons. We’re excited to see what’s next.”

“This reinforces what we’ve seen over the years,” said longtime BioAg consultant Ron Gifford. “At Midwestern BioAg, we see the soil as a major farm asset. Our products are designed to support crop performance this season, while building soil health for future seasons. This study demonstrates that farmers no longer have to choose between short-term profits and long-term improvement.”

 

Better Oats, Less Nitrogen

The oats study, done in collaboration with the same large food company, involved existing BioAg customers who established and harvested more than 2,000 acres of oats.

“We found that oats grown on the BioAg program required substantially less purchased nitrogen,” noted Phillips. “Test plots averaged 0.44 units of purchased nitrogen per bushel, about 50 percent less than what is typically applied. This is noteworthy, especially as large food companies seek to lower the carbon footprint of their supply chains.”

Reducing nitrogen use can lower the greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions associated with its production (making nitrogen is an energy-intense process). It can also reduce the likelihood of nitrous oxides escaping into the atmosphere and nitrates leaching into the water. The study also revealed additional findings about nutritional values.

“Grain analysis showed that oats grown on the BioAg program contained nearly 59 percent more beta-glucans, or soluble fiber,” said Phillips. Beta-glucans have been shown to help lower cholesterol, allowing food companies to make “heart-healthy” claims. Protein levels in the grains also shot up close to 50 percent.

Consultant Ron Gifford said he wasn’t surprised by the nutritional gains. “The increase in nutritional values for oats looks a lot like the nutritional gains we see in forage,” said Gifford. “The same principles apply. If the nutrients are available in the soil, they’ll end up in the plant and ultimately in the food and forage.”

The two studies will continue into 2016, with the oats acreage expected to increase to more than 5,000 acres.

 

Future Projects

Current research efforts include long-term collaborations with major universities, including the Universities of Wisconsin, Illinois and Arizona. All trials are designed to evaluate products, and to assess the overall impact of Midwestern BioAg’s systems-based approach to farming.

Large food company studies will continue in 2016. In addition to this work, the BioAg research team will continue assessing current and potential products. This includes exploration of new liquid fertilizers to expand and complement current offerings, new seed genetics, as well as product analysis and comparison.

 

About Our Team

Midwestern BioAg’s research team is led by Dr. Steven Slater. Steve has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics, 10 years of experience in academia and 10 years of agriculture research experience.

Working with Steve are scientists Bill Petersen and Dr. Maggie Phillips. Bill, our lead researcher, holds a B.S. in Agronomy from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and has more than 30 years of experience in agronomy, plant biology and plant pathology.

Maggie is our project manager and our research chemist. She holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is a certified project management professional.

Waking the Soil

Forty-year farmer and Marine veteran Gary Rademacher never stops improving. When he first started farming near Holdingford, Minnesota in the 1970s, 100-bushel corn yields and 40-bushel soybean yields were the status-quo. “Those were bar-stool yields,” said Rademacher, “yields you could go into town and be proud of.”

Rademacher’s farm has come a long way in the past 40 years. Today, he averages 200-bushel corn and 66-bushel soybeans in the short Minnesota growing season. “If you always do everything the same, you’ll get the same yields. We always go for more and never give up,” said Rademacher.

“With the help of my two sons and five grandsons, we operate about 550 acres of mostly corn and soybeans,” said Rademacher. A former dairy farmer and genetics expert, Rademacher sold his herd of registered Holsteins just five years ago. “We used to grow much more alfalfa when we operated Heavens View Farms. We exported embryos all over — China, England, France, Holland — and had about 350 to 400 head at any given time.”

Rademacher attributes much of his success to advancements in ag technology and his 15-year partnership with Midwestern BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien. “I wish I had worked with Mike from the very beginning. BioAg has been instrumental in taking my crop production to the next level.”

 

 

In some areas, Rademacher has achieved 230-bushel corn yields using just 130 pounds of nitrogen.

 

 

Boosting Nitrogen Efficiency

Working with Lovlien, Rademacher has topped county yields with fertilizer blends designed to support his soil. “Gary applied a 8-18-15-9S starter with high traces to his corn and soybeans this year,” said Lovlien. Rademacher applied the fertilizer in-furrow at 275 pounds per acre on his corn and 180 pounds per acre on beans.

When his corn reached the V6 growth stage, Rademacher made a second pass with 32% nitrogen and L-CBF BOOST™ at a 10 percent inclusion rate. “Gary was really impressed with his corn crop this year,” said Lovlien. “In areas where Boost was applied, Gary saw significant results — about an 18 bushel-per-acre increase.”

Made with pure sugar cane molasses, L-CBF delivers plant nutrients in a carbon base to stimulate soil biology and increase nutrient availability. “My sense is that BOOST played a role in keeping nitrogen available to support late-season growth,” said Rademacher. “With $3 corn, we can’t afford to lose any.”

Rademacher saw results from BOOST all season. “Plants this year were extremely healthy, despite the wet year. Standability was excellent, root structures were strong and fields were very uniform. A few of my neighbors also applied BOOST this year and you could see the difference from the road. Next year, we plan to double our BOOST inclusion rate on low-fertility fields. It does just what Mike said it would — it’s like it just woke up the soil.”

In some areas, Rademacher has achieved 230-bushel corn yields using just 130 pounds of nitrogen. “Mike has helped us come a long way with our fertilizer program,” said Rademacher. “He’s really helped us keep nitrogen application timely and efficient.”

Cover Crop Success

For the past eight years, Rademacher has followed fall harvest with cover crops whenever possible. He’s experimented with rye, clover, oats, and tillage radish. “We’ve had phenomenal success with rye,” said Rademacher. “There are so many benefits to cover crops, but it does take a bit of learning and adjustment.” Rademacher recommends farmers plant as early as possible to build in time for cover crop establishment later in the season.

“We like to follow soybeans with rye in the fall,” said Rademacher. “In the spring, we terminate the rye after 4 to 6 inches of regrowth, disc it in after about 48 hours, and then use a regular seed drill to plant corn. Planting rye after beans helps capture nitrogen and keeps it from leaching over winter.”

Rademacher focuses on planting cover crops on erodible acres first to help keep topsoil intact. “I’ve worked with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help recoup some of the extra costs of cover crops.” Sponsored by the NRCS, EQIP provides financial assistance to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land.

“Cover crops have helped improve my fertilizer efficiency and break the cycle of insect pressure,” noted Rademacher. “My soils have improved and my plants show it. Seed emergence is better, and my soil is much more crumbly. Biological activity is up, and I now have that ‘chocolate cake’ soil Gary Zimmer is always talking about.”

Rademacher also works with the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program (MAWQCP), an initiative designed to help farmers take the lead in implementing water conservation practices. “We are in the process of becoming MAWQCP certified,” said Rademacher. “The things we do to promote soil health on our farm also protect water quality. It’s win-win for stewardship and profitability.”

By focusing on soil health, Rademacher has also seen residue decomposition rates increase. His crops have benefited from the increased organic matter and the biological activity in his soils.

“When I added cover crops into my rotation, rootworm and aphid issues declined,” said Rademacher. “Farmers pay about $30 extra a unit for rootworm protection. I no longer buy that trait for corn following rye because I haven’t needed it. I can’t say for certain I’ll never have rootworm issues again, but by the looks of my plants today, I don’t need it.”

Rademacher’s goal is to leave his soil in better condition than when he first started farming 40 years ago. He has no plan to stop improving any time soon. “I don’t plan on getting old too soon,” said Rademacher. “It’s just starting to get fun!”

Better Soil, Bigger Yields

Shullsburg, Wisconsin, farmer Chad Gleason is enthusiastic about everything he does — from managing his 400-head steer finishing operation, to growing corn and hay for his livestock with help from Midwestern BioAg.

Gleason farms on a wide variety of soil types — some of them are great like his Tama soil (reputed to be the best soil in the world), and others that are not so great in the hills.

But all of the fields are going gangbusters since he decided to utilize the products and practices recommended by Midwestern BioAg seven years ago.

 

300-Bushel Corn

“We have some very fertile fields that are producing really well, but we also have some poorer ground that’s yielding great too.” Since he switched to the BioAg program, Gleason said he isn’t surprised to get 300-bushel corn yields.

“I am very impressed. Most people don’t believe me when I talk about my soil tests,” he said. “I’m definitely sold on the results.” He uses his phone to show photos of corn ears as big as his forearm weighing 1.36 pounds each. He hit 301 bushels per acre with those ears, on fields planted in 38-inch rows and a population of 30,500 plants per acre.

Before working with BioAg, 125-bushel corn yields on Gleason’s farm were the norm. He can only marvel at the corn yields he gets now and the rates at which his soil organic matter scores have risen. “I have no soils under 4 percent organic matter now. Many of my soils are 5, 6, 7, even 8 percent organic matter. Most were in the range of 3 percent when we started.”

 

 

Since he switched to the BioAg program, Gleason said he isn’t surprised to get 300-bushel corn yields.

 

 

Gleason is primarily a livestock man, but believes that good production will follow if the soil is taken care of. “Everything starts with good soils that produce good crops that do good things for my livestock. It’s a cycle — everything works together.”

The main enterprise on the Gleason farm is raising beef cattle. The baby calves and the 400-head steer finishing operation are both on Chad’s 80-acre farm, which once belonged to his great-grandfather. He’s now the fourth generation of his family to farm that land.

Chad farms with his wife Katrina — they have two young children and another on the way — and shares some equipment with his parents Pat and Betty who have their own 200-acre farm nearby. “We have some bigger equipment that we share and we try to help each other back and forth.”

 

High-Yielding Forage

In addition to working his own land, Chad rents about 100 acres of hay ground. He tries to produce as much feed as he can for his livestock to cut down on purchased feed and save the livestock enterprise money. He generally grows pure alfalfa stands on his fields to produce high-protein hay and save on purchased protein costs. Last year, Gleason took 10.5 tons per acre of dry matter off his hayfields in five cuttings. “I’ve never had so much hay.”

Fields are generally kept in alfalfa for three years and then corn is brought into the rotation for a few years, depending on the price of corn and other factors. Gleason also grows oats for straw and uses the grain in his calf starter. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible. It’s a lot more work but the savings have paid off.”

His feedlot cattle are fed with a total mixed ration (TMR) utilizing his corn and hay crops. The corn is all harvested as “snaplage” — the grain, cob and husk is harvested with a silage chopper equipped with a snapper head and a kernel processor. Gleason stores his feed in a bunker silo and horizontal silo bags.

 

Fertility Program

Gleason credits BioAg’s Bio-Cal® with building his soil’s tilth. “Bio-Cal creates humus and humus builds organic matter,” he said.

Gleason’s fields get at least 1,300 pounds per acre of Bio-Cal yearly each fall. “My rented field gets 1,700 pounds to the acre. With a good, balanced fertilizer program and good manure, it all works together.”

His fields are “in the soil corrective stage,” and he knows that eventually this productive phase will slow. “We are at the high end of these soil additives but we are throwing everything at it to see what will happen.”

His fertilizer program includes 32% nitrogen that goes on with his pre-emergent application of herbicide, and then a broadcast of BioAg fertilizer in the spring. He does grid-sample soil testing with BioAg every two years.

When it comes to selecting seed corn, he is “very happy with Master’s Choice for feed.” Nearly all the corn he plants is Master’s Choice — generally 112-day and 118-day corn. “When corn moisture hits 40 percent, the chopper is rolling,” said Gleason.

For 2016, he plans to save money by planting all conventional corn rather than the genetically modified (GM) stacked-trait corn at double the price tag. Last year he experimented with some conventional corn along with his GM corn and didn’t see much difference. “It’s a no-brainer to save that much on seed cost.”

Gleason plans to continue to push his fields with BioAg products to see how much production he can get. He has noticed that when his neighbors have ponding on their fields after rain, he doesn’t; in drought conditions, his crops look green and healthy compared to those of his neighbors. “I’m definitely a believer,” said Gleason. “You can visually see the difference.”

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Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

The Farming Pharmacist

A New Jersey native — with no farmers in his family tree — is now a successful beef breeder and cash cropper in Minnesota’s Winona County, southeast of Minneapolis. Tom Scarponcini came to his beautiful Rushford-area farm by way of Maine, where he started a small enterprise pasturing 16 head of cattle and learning about rotational grazing. “I wanted to be a farmer, but I have no idea where that came from,” he says.

After getting a taste of farming in Maine, Scarponcini wanted to expand his operation but it was nearly impossible in that area. “You end up paying house-lot prices for new land, but then I stumbled on this place,” he says. “This place,” which includes the highest spot in the county, comprises 870 total acres; 330 acres are used for crop production. He fell in love with the rolling, sloping hillsides and could envision it as a place to expand his beef herd.

“This is a beautiful farm for raising cattle,” says Scarponcini. At the start, it was kind of run down. “It was a diamond in the rough, which made it affordable. But you just looked at the depth of the black dirt and you knew there was potential there.”

For the first few years after purchasing his farm, Scarponcini rented out the farmland while he concentrated on building 32 miles of fence and installing 13 miles of water line so he could set the land up for rotational grazing. He also moonlighted as a pharmacist on the second shift at the Mayo Clinic, which helped with the setup of his Brandywine Farm.

About 20 years ago, Scarponcini visited Midwestern BioAg’s booth at the Rochester farm show and met with Gary Zimmer, the company’s founder. Having earned his pharmacy license, Scarponcini had a very strong background in chemistry and biology. He also obtained a master’s in microbiology and had a good grasp on the science as he read the promotional materials from BioAg. “I knew very little about agriculture at the time, but the science — the biology, chemistry, and microbiology — all made sense. In theory it sounded right and I thought it was worth a try. It’s not organic; it’s biological,” he said.

Two years after landing at his Minnesota farm, Scarponcini took over the management of his crop acres and began a long relationship with BioAg consultant Mike Lovlien. Twenty years later, he is getting silage corn with 204-bushel-per-acre yields, his plants are 13 feet tall, and the stalks are thick and green. When Scarponcini and Lovlien analyze root systems, soil, and earthworm holes, they find “it’s cooking,” Scarponcini says.

Lovlien notes that they avoid applying harsh inputs that can restrict soil life. “We’re not out there harming soil health. Tom has fully embraced our program. In 2013, we grid-sampled every 2½ acres on his land,” he said.Tom Scarponcini_Mike Lovelien in corn field

Another factor his crop acres benefit from is the cattle that are a part of Scarponcini’s operation. Along with dedicated cropland, he has 350 acres of permanent pasture on which graze 250 cow-calf units — some registered Gelbvieh and some that are Balancer breed — a registered hybrid between Angus and Gelbvieh. These hybrids, he explains, gain carcass traits and a black hide from the Angus side, while getting their mothering ability from the Gelbvieh. Of the 250 cows that calved this spring, all but two were born on his farm. “They were raised here and adapted to this environment and management program.”

The cattle have been more than helpful in balancing the cash flow of the farm and providing manure that enriches the land. During calving season, manure is stockpiled from cattle yards at the farmstead and is used selectively on the fields. Scarponcini and Lovlien manage his land, but he leaves the crop planting and harvesting to custom operators who have recently put up huge piles of corn silage at the farm.

“I have to hand it to Tom,” says Lovlien. “He manages the two enterprises to support each other. He sold cattle to help pay for soil improvements in 2013 and he will recoup that for years to come.”

One of the things that drew this farmer to BioAg is that the company emphasizes the importance of micronutrients as well as calcium and sulfur. “No one else ever acknowledged that they were even significant. Their significance was obvious to me with my science background. If a micronutrient is a catalyst for a larger process, then when it’s gone, that process stops. Of course it’s important,” Scarponcini adds.

He went into the BioAg program on its claims, and was won over by the tangible results — tonnage, evidence of earthworm activity, and nodules on the roots. Tissue analyses of his haylage showed that his crops stood at the highest test levels in every category. “That really impressed me.”

Some of his crops are “too rich” for his beef cows and must be diluted with corn stalks or lower-quality hay. His corn production this year is 12 bushels ahead of where it was last year. “I’ve achieved a level of production that I’m comfortable with,” said Scarponcini. “All indications are that it is working.”

Scarponcini has been active in the cattle business since he started his enterprise. His cattle leave the farm as breeding bulls and replacement heifers for other breeders. He helped start a cooperative marketing group 13 years ago with breeders in Missouri, Nevada, and Colorado called Seedstock Plus with a strong commitment to commercial producers.

All their bulls are tested for feed efficiency and DNA tested for the gene markers that are associated with tenderness of their beef. “There’s no reason in the world for anyone to ever have a tough steak. Genomics has identified the genes for tenderness. We have the tools.”

The Balancer breed’s development — in which Scarponcini was instrumental — draws on hybrid vigor by crossing the two breeds and pulls the best qualities from each breed. Two-thirds of his own herd is purebred Gelbvieh, which are red, and one-third is Balancer.

Scarponcini says it took him almost 20 years to get his place “up and running,” but his goal was always to get the farm in reasonable condition so he could retire from his pharmacy job, which he did in March 2013, a few years ahead of schedule. BioAg’s program was a big part of bringing his farm back to life.

“I strongly believe that I have a moral and ethical obligation to leave the farm, as a whole, in better condition than I found it,” Scarponcini said. “It transcends being a job to being a way of life.”

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Jan Shepel has over 25 years of ag journalism experience and lives in southwestern Wisconsin.

From the Desk of Tony Michaels, CEO

There is a lot of buzz these days about sustainability in agriculture, a term that means different things to different people. As author Rob Gray might say, sustainable agriculture is about “treating the world as if we intended to stay.”

As a Midwestern BioAg customer, you practice this concept on your farm year after year. With an eye on building future farm productivity, you manage your soils for long-term health by putting down the best fertilizer possible in the most efficient ways. The short-term benefits are obvious — increased yields and higher quality feeds. The long-term benefits are compelling — reduced environmental impacts and higher farm margins.

Sustainable agriculture is a hot-button issue in today’s media, and for good reason. Nutrient runoff is arguably one of the most-debated topics in ag today. As the costs of cleaning nitrate and phosphorus deposits from drinking water financially strain municipal budgets, governments look to point and non-point pollution sources like agriculture for solutions.

 

 

With an eye on building future farm productivity, you manage your soils for long-term health by putting down the best fertilizer possible in the most efficient ways. The short-term benefits are obvious — increased yields and higher quality feeds. The long-term benefits are compelling — reduced environmental impacts and higher farm margins

 

 

Often not included in the story are the methods farmers like you already implement to keep nutrients out of the waterways and in your fields. Your motivations are twofold: putting down quality nutrients efficiently is both financially smart and environmentally sound. As a Midwestern BioAg customer, you plant cover crops whenever possible and practice tillage only when necessary to reduce compaction and keep top-soil loss at a minimum. You understand that a good soil structure increases water-holding capacity and nutrient cycling — two benefits that improve profitability and reduce nutrient loss.

Midwestern BioAg customers farm for margins in ways that go beyond mere sustainability. Over the past 30 years, our industry has seen tremendous advancement. Yields are higher, efficiencies are stronger, and cattle are more robust. And today, as pressures increase to make these advancements sustainable, the industry has stepped up to the challenge. Every farm conference or industry publication is peppered with mentions of best farming practices that can make farming better without sacrificing profitability.

The environmental benefits of our products and recommended practices are a silent addition to the reasons why our approach to farming has value. These benefits also have real value to municipalities. It costs a city $25 to $100 to remove each pound of phosphate from wastewater. It costs millions of dollars to put in a nitrate removal technology for urban drinking water.

At BioAg, we are exploring ways to have local cities “trade” their cleanup requirements to the farmer and create an additional revenue source for the farm. Under this type of policy, growers like you could reduce water-quality problems for free — while making more money on crops themselves. This is the kind of win-win situation needed to support sustainable change in agriculture.

This is just one of the many benefits of our approach to farm management, benefits that arise from a practical system of farming that can focus on all the factors that contribute to soil health, plant nutrition, and farm profitability. By taking this economically savvy approach to farm management, together we can truly “treat the world as if we intended to stay.”

Helping Hunger Task Force Feed Those in Need

The Hunger Task Force works to end hunger in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, metro area. Their farm, located just southwest of the city, serves over 40,000 people in need each month. The farm produces over 800,000 pounds of fresh produce each year, cultivating nearly 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Formed in the early 1980s, the Hunger Task Force’s mission is to provide food to people in need today, to achieve a hunger-free community tomorrow. Some 75 percent of their produce recipients are a particularly vulnerable population: children and the elderly.

The Hunger Task Force is dedicated to its work. But with a group of beginner farmers at the helm, they were willing to try new things. And Midwestern BioAg was happy to provide guidance.

“We have a really bright and talented crew of young farmers,” including four University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Agriculture alums,” said Matt King, farm director at the Hunger Task Force. “That’s where the partnership with Midwestern BioAg comes into play, because we are young farmers.”

The operation is unique because staff can test equipment and management practices without affecting the financial bottom line that a typical commercial farmer must consider.

“The fun part about working with them is that they are very receptive,” said Ben Bartlett, a southeastern Wisconsin-based BioAg consultant who works alongside BioAg vegetable expert Allen Philo to craft the Hunger Task Force fertility program. “We make a suggestion and they try it out: short cropping cycles, multiple cropping cycles.”

The Hunger Task Force also has an interesting labor force: a small army of nearly 5,000 volunteers who participate in every aspect of their farming process, from seed to harvest.

“Hunger Task Force is a food bank year-round,” noted King. “After the farm has planned out the next year, ordered seeds, and completed any necessary equipment repairs, our team works on a natural-area restoration project.” This fall, the farm also plans to build hoop houses to extend the growing season into late fall.

Aside from an open-minded approach to agricultural practices and ag connections, the Hunger Task Force shares Midwestern BioAg’s dedication to replenishing soils and treating them responsibly for the benefit of all.

 

 

Bio-Cal® is a building block for healthy soil, with a proprietary blend of five calcium sources including both soluble and time-released.

 

 

“We really view ourselves as stewards of this land that we’re farming,” King said. “We want to ensure that the farm is going to continue to be viable and to produce 20 to 30 years from now. And Midwestern BioAg has the expertise to help move in that direction.”

Midwestern BioAg keyed in on the Hunger Task Force’s need to develop a program to revitalize their soil with cover crops on the nearly 100 acres it farms on a 200-acre parcel of land. The other 100 acres lies along the Root River.

“In some years past, it’s been challenging for us to stay organized and be deliberate with our cover-cropping schedule,” King said. “Working with Ben and Midwestern BioAg, we’ve been able to keep on top of that and we haven’t had any fields without cover this year.”

With the help of Bartlett and Philo, King’s team analyzed the farm’s different geographical areas to determine the best cover crops to improve issues like soil compaction and nutrient imbalances.

“Their challenges were heavy clay soils and relatively out-of-balance calcium ratios,” Bartlett said. “With clay soils you get tightness, hard crusting issues, and poor drainage. So we’re trying to improve water management, as well as fertility.”

“Despite cover cropping in the previous year, we were experiencing a degree of soil compaction that was limiting the production of our green beans,” said King. “Through Midwestern BioAg, we were able to optimize the planting rate of our cover crop seeds.”

Midwestern BioAg’s Bio-Cal® product has helped to rebalance the land’s nutrient ratios. Bio-Cal is a building block for healthy soil, with a proprietary blend of five calcium sources including both soluble and time-released. It helps improve nutrient availability and also improves soil structure in heavy soils.

The Hunger Task Force’s farm also applies Midwestern BioAg’s custom-blended fertilizers, which are designed to work with the land it’s used on. These custom blends contain not just N-P-K, but calcium, sulfur, and magnesium, as well as micronutrients, including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, and boron.

King said the relationship they’ve built with Midwestern BioAg is an asset to the growth of their farm and their experience as farmers.

“They’ve taken a lot of time to come and visit us throughout the season. They check on our progress and provide insight,” King said. “With them, we have a long-term partner who cares about the sustainability of our operation.”

Midwestern BioAg’s dedication to healthier soils, farms, food, and communities is a tie that binds them to the mission of the Hunger Task Force.

“I know that there’s a concerted interest on their part in helping our farm be successful so that families who are struggling and having hard times can also have access to fresh produce,” King said.

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Raised on a third-generation cattle and grain farm in Illinois, Holly Henschen is an active writer and blogger from Madison, Wisconsin.