Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to realize you need to do things differently.
For Indiana farmer Josh Cox, that moment came after a 4-inch rain caused a mudslide of his best topsoil to relocate in a silt bank on his neighbor’s farm.
“From that point on, I was on a quest,” says the 36-year-old, who farms 4,000 acres with his wife, Susanne, and parents Carl and Kathy near Lafayette. “It was one of my aha moments in farming. While growing up as a kid, some of my best memories were being with my dad or grandpa plowing and chiseling. Everyone thought a Glencoe soil saver was used for conservation tillage. But we’ve evolved over time.”
Cox began to think about weather extremes — too much rain, then too little — and how they impact his crop “factory.”
“We needed to make our soils more resilient, on a whole-farm level,” he says.
Step 1: no-till, less fertilizer
Cox converted to no-till planting after selling the cultivators and disks (which they had to buy back to level tile lines after pattern-tiling farms). He added waterways, filter strips and a denitrifying bioreactor. He began tinkering with in-season, in-row banded fertilizer.
“We had to change the way we thought about our planter setup and the way we managed nutrient placement and timing,” he says.
Cox added micronutrients and began to do split applications of fertilizer, one at V2 and again at V10 for remaining nitrogen needs. Talking with successful no-tillers about planter configurations, fertilization methods and the value of patience made the transition much easier.
Step 2: cover crops
Ten years ago he planted his first cover crop of annual rye grass. Then he aerial-seeded triticale into standing soybeans as a fall feed source for the cows, “and fell in love with covers.”
He diversified his rotation with wheat, which let him grow “summer cocktails” of a mixture of covers. It also opened up grazing opportunities for his 100-cow embryo-recipient beef herd. The farm receives embryos from seedstock suppliers and puts them in lower-quality cattle, resulting in higher-quality offspring.
“Planting covers started out as a way to add supplemental feed for cattle, but now more than 75% of our total acres have a cover crop planted on them every year,” he says. “Incorporating covers into a livestock program was an absolute no-brainer.”
Even so, it took a few years to determine best management practices, like species selection, seeding method and termination timing.
Cox sees economic benefits from better soil health. He’s seen yield monitors jump as he crosses old barn lots, filter strips or torn-out fencerows. When he harvested a corn crop on an old farmyard that had been in trees for generations, his yield monitor logged over 300 bushels per acre. Crossing an old fencerow, it jumped again.
“Those are areas that have been untouched by the plow and are in a somewhat natural state, yet plants thrive and the soil is unbelievably resilient,” he says. “Those are the areas we want to duplicate while still raising a cash crop.”
Step 3: organic via forages
Cox is transitioning into organic grain by establishing forages. The farm will continue to raise seed soybeans, seed wheat, non-GMO corn and feed milo.
“My main goal is to increase organic matter and get on the fast track,” he says. “We want to mimic nature. Though not perfectly duplicated, we can get much closer with crop rotation and plant diversity.
“I like steak and potatoes but not for every meal, and that is what we give the life in the soil to feed on if we only plant corn and soybeans.”
The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress.