There's never a dull moment on a visit to David Brandt's farm.
The 70-year old no-till cover crop pioneer finishes loading his no-till planter, then greets me warmly. He promptly nods for me to get into a nearby ATV – we're going to the fields to see what he's been up to this spring.
Brandt's innovative testing with cover crop seed mixes, intercropping and no-till have made him a popular figure in the conservation crowd. But now he's working on ways to prove that this is more than just conservation; if his tests play out, farmers who use similar practices may be able to shave 2016 input costs.
"The problem today is we have been told you need to apply this and buy that to make a yield," he says. "But if we start treating the soil right we may not need all those extra things to make maximum economic returns. We're trying to prove that, with the right no-till system, what we have in the soil is all we need to maintain production."
Brandt's 1,200-acre working crop farm in the gently rolling fields of central Ohio serves as a massive test plot. I thought I was seeing things when we stop at a field of corn intercropped with soybeans.
"These soybeans will give 100 lb. of nitrogen back to the corn crop," he explains. The soybean plants will die off once the corn canopy shades them out. "After the cost of seed and planting, this will lower the cost of N to that corn crop by half." That's conservatively $60 per acre savings on fertilizer costs, something farmers everywhere should think about if crop prices continue to languish.
These intercropping trials began four years ago as a local FFA project. In plots with no nitrogen applied – just soybeans intercropped -- the corn yielded 182 bu. per acre. In a nearby field where 140 units of N was applied but without the intercropped beans, the field yielded only 125 bu. per acre.
"That's when my eyes really opened up on this idea," he says. "Over the growing season we've seen the corn roots grow right into the soy root nodule where the nitrogen is."
Weed suppressing cover crops
On another plot Brandt is looking at non-GM corn with zero seed treatment compared to GM seed with and without treatments, which can cost $45 to $60 per acre.
"We're trying to see if biotech traits are worth it in specific soil conditions like no-till with weed-suppressing cover crops," he says. "Guys with conventionally tilled fields probably do need them because those soils have no micro-organisms to speak of.
"With these plots we're trying to see if no-till, cover crops and rotation will do enough in terms of insect and weed control," he adds.
If Brandt can make that connection it would mean shaving another $50 to $100 off crop budgets for 2016. As crop prices continue to fall near or below breakevens, that's something every farmer should be thinking about.
Look for a full report on Dave Brandt's farm test plots in one of our fall issues.