Ralph "Junior" Upton, Springerton, IL
|By adding cover crops and switching to no till, Junior Upton drastically improved his habitually compacted soil. |
Photo by Dan Anderson.
New in 2005
Summary of Operation
1,800 acres of no-till corn, beans and wheat
Rye grass, cereal rye and hairy vetch cover crops
Difficult soil characteristics. Ralph “Junior” Upton farms poorly drained land characterized by an impenetrable layer, or “plow pan,” six to eight inches deep that crop roots typically can’t grow through.
Upton, whom everyone calls “Junior,” grew up on the land he now farms. His father was a teacher and only dabbled in farming, but Upton loved it, and still does. He began farming full time in 1964, at age 18, on the family’s 1,800 acres in southern Illinois, and, over time, perfected his cropping system.
To Upton, the soil became everything. His dominant soil type –– Bluford –– is poorly drained, especially on the broad summits of his farm’s hills and knolls. On slope ranging from 0 to 3 percent, Upton is challenged by the plow pan limiting the soil from holding water. Droughts, even short ones, can be a problem, and heavy rains cause flooding that is slow to recede in low areas.
For years, he did the best he could with the difficult soils he had. He employed tillage and other technologies, but did not think he could actually improve the soil over the long term.
One day, in the mid-1980s, Upton got a magnified view of his soil’s limitations. While tearing out a fence, Upton noticed plenty of moisture in the soil about three feet down. Above it sat a compacted layer of soil through which no roots were growing. Upton had a visible confirmation of why, during dry years, the shallow-rooted crops dried up even though there was plenty of water stored in the soil below.
“I began looking for a way to break up that plow pan so my crops could get to the moisture they needed,” he says.
Focal Point of Operation - No-till and cover crops
About the same time Upton learned about his soil’s plow plan, he began hearing about no-till farming. He wondered if some of the claims might help his soil. He started no-tilling, thinking that it might at least stop further erosion of his soil, and possibly alleviate some of the compaction caused by the plow pan.
A few years later, with the help of University of Illinois Extension Educator, Mike Plumer, Upton started educating himself about cover crops, non-cash crops grown for benefits such as protecting the soil from erosion, providing nitrogen to the following cash crop, helping manage weeds, increasing soil organic matter and providing habitat for beneficial insects. Upton began experimenting with covers in his no-till system, and Plumer helped Junior choose species and set out experimental plots to test their ideas.
Upton began planting cover crops –– rye grass, cereal rye and hairy vetch –– after harvesting beans and corn. He developed a cycle that works on his primary goal of improving the soil’s water-holding capacity, but one that makes sense in his southern Illinois climate. Farmers seek to get as much growth as possible without compromising the following cash crop. If allowed to grow too much, cover crops suck up the water needed by the following cash crop. Moreover, if the cover accumulates too much above-ground growth, it can be difficult to kill and plant in during the spring, especially using no-till.
“Timing,” Upton says, “is everything.” His rotations follow this dictum.
Following wheat, for example, he plants hairy vetch to add nitrogen to the soil for the following corn crop. Vetch needs to be planted early — in August — to put on enough growth before winter, so it’s a natural follower after Upton’s wheat harvest in July. Similarly, Upton follows soybeans with rye grass, which breaks up his soil with its deep roots. It doesn’t grow as tall as cereal rye, so it’s easier to kill back before Upton no-tills corn the next spring.
He kills the cover crop with an herbicide, aiming for the optimum time after the cover crop roots have grown down into the plow layer but before the plant puts on too much above-ground growth. That way, the cover crop puts most of its energy into roots. A few weeks after killing the cover, Upton no-tills his corn or soybeans directly into the cover crop residue. He side-dresses liquid nitrogen a few weeks later in corn. While some growth occurs in the fall and winter, by the following spring, cover crops really take off.
Over a decade, Upton worked with Plumer to perfect the system. The results, Plumer says, have been impressive.
“We’re seeing corn roots down to 60 inches,” Plumer says. “The corn is not stressed, water isn’t pooling in the low areas like it use to, and yields are higher.” He points out how the plow pan, once a very visible white layer of compacted silt, has faded dramatically. Covers crop roots and earthworms have begun remixing the A-horizon soil –– the top layer –– with the compacted layer, changing its appearance and structure.
“Junior has done something that most soil science students are taught is all but impossible: In a relatively short time he’s changed his soil into something different than it used to be,” Plumer says.
Upton’s research over time helped him understand the subtle nuances that make the system work, and the results have been both visible and gratifying. “Since we have been using no till, the organic matter has gone up 1 percent to almost 3 percent,” he says. “The hard pan, which restricted the depth of the roots, is just about gone.”
Economics and Profitability
The effect of Upton’s improved soil on corn yields has been dramatic. Before the change, corn yields were as low as 35 to 40 bushels per acre. Junior has seen yields rise to well more than 100 bushels per acre.
Upton estimates that no-till farming saves him $10 to $15 per acre, primarily thanks to smaller equipment, fewer trips across the field and less fuel burned in the process.
Planting and managing cover crops comes with a cost — $8 to $20 an acre for Upton to buy cover crop seed and purchase herbicide to knock it back. Yet, the hairy vetch partially replaces commercial nitrogen; he credits the vetch cover crop with supplying 30 to 40 pounds of nitrogen for the following corn crop. (Typically, a farmer in his area might apply 100 to 150 pounds of nitrogen for corn.) Upton maximizes hairy vetch’s nitrogen contribution by allowing it to grow into April before killing it prior to planting corn. The cover crop brings other benefits, too.
“It kills fast and easy and produces a nice mat that keeps down weeds,” Upton says.
The cover crop makes Upton’s operation more resilient. He can plant his cash crop late without losing yields, and his crops survive without rain, thanks to his soil’s new water-storing capacity. In 2001, for example, Upton didn’t plant corn until late May, and in three subsequent seasons no rain fell in July and August, but the crop still yielded 115 bushels per acre.
“It was amazing to me how much impact the soil improvement had on yields,” Upton says.
Upton’s yields always suffered when more than two weeks elapsed between rains. By enhancing the soil’s ability to hold water, Upton reduced the risk of crop failure from drought. Economically, that means a steadier, more dependable income from the land.
In fall 2004, the skies opened over southern Illinois. It proved eye-opening. No-tilling for several years improved the soil enough that harvesting proceeded apace, but fields without a long no-till history were too muddy for Upton to run his harvester.
“We didn’t cut any ruts on the ground that had been no-tilled for a number of years. It gave us no problems because it was more solid,” Upton says. “The ground that had been no-tilled only a year or two cut ruts 4 to 5 inches deep.”
By contrast, his neighbors who plowed had to wait to harvest into December.
Upton’s no-till/cover crop combination has improved the farm hydrology. Before, his shallow topsoil quickly saturated with rain. The excess water flowed quickly to low areas, carrying loose soil into waterways, or collecting in pools that drowned the crops. After the rains stopped, it didn’t take long for the crop to use up the small amount of moisture stored in the shallow topsoil above the plow pan.
Upton enhanced the soil’s ability to store water, and more water available to the crop during the growing season explains much of the yield boost he’s seen. Short-term drought is less of an issue, crop health is improved, and when the water finally does leave the farm, it isn’t carrying the farm’s soil with it.
The improved hydrology also helps retain nutrients within the system, as eroded soil carries with it soil nutrients inherent in the soil or applied as fertilizer. “Water runoff from the no-till field is clear,” Upton says. “There is no wind erosion, and it has provided a good environment for wildlife.”
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
The no-till and cover crop system has resulted in real changes for Upton’s lifestyle. The elimination of tillage means fewer trips across the field and a reduction in labor. During wet autumns, Upton previously delayed his harvest, with great stress. Today, Upton can run the harvester on soils whose surfaces dry more quickly thanks to improved soil quality.
In general, Upton likes the new cropping system. “I do enjoy it,” he says. “I feel I’m improving the environment and the water quality, and the soil health is good. Being able to find earthworms any time I dig in the soil tells me I’m improving the soil.”
His success has drawn the attention of other farmers. He frequently gets calls from others requesting information on how he got started. His farm is a popular location for field tours, and several study groups run at his local Extension office visit his farm. Even though it takes time away from farming, Upton regularly shares what he’s learned with others.
“Use on-farm research to test ideas before adopting practices on the whole farm,” Upton advises.
With a wide variety of no-till equipment available and a solid history of no-till research, many farmers can adopt no-till in their fields. Adding cover crops, however, will succeed better with an incremental approach and on-farm research. For example, timing of planting and killing are crucial, as is having the proper equipment and choosing suitable species.
“It definitely takes time to learn the system,” says Upton. “Start slow on a small scale, then build up the acres when your confidence increases.”
Upton gives Mike Plumer credit for the personalized help he provides. He recommends employing the services of a knowledgeable Extension educator to assist with on-farm research, data analysis and management decisions. “If it weren’t for Mike and a few others, I couldn’t do it,” he says.
Now that Upton understands how cover crops are working with his no-till system, he has begun the process of using it in more of his fields, and fine-tuning the system already in place. He sees a need for better cover crop species and ways to incorporate them into the corn-soybean rotation. “I see no end to the need to learn more,” he says.
Profile written by Dan Anderson
For more information:
RR 1, Box 176
Springerton, IL 62887