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Rulon Enterprises’ plan is to be sustainable, as follows:
1. Be a low-cost producer.
2. Increase soil organic matter. 24 years of never-till and other conservation measures have increased organic matter to 3.5%, up from 2.4% in 1991.
3. Pattern tile with 0.5-inch coefficients ((in this 40-inch annual rainfall (Indiana) region to speed drainage on these clay soils)). Standing water for more than 20 minutes costs you 30-50 bushels, says Ken Rulon.
4. The other half of profitability: Be a high-price seller. Ken studies historic price patterns and trends to manage price risk, with a goal of selling in the top 10% of the annual range 75% of the time. “Grain prices vary 30 to 50% each year; costs do not,” Ken says. “We think these goals are required if you want your grandchildren to farm.”
Continuous no-till (24 years) lowers the cost of corn production by 15% and boosts long-term soil organic matter for Rodney (left), Ken and Roy Rulon, Arcadia, Ind.
Cover crops joined the Rulon strategy in 2006 to help reduce erosion, increase soil organic matter, anchor nutrients and break up soil compaction.
They normally plant an oat-tillage radish-crimson clover mix after soybeans when following a September harvest with a 15-inch Great Plains planter, alternating rows by species. Oats and radish capture excess nutrients after the growing season, die over winter, leaving clover to counter soil compaction into the spring. They continue to experiment with cereal rye after soybeans, and the following spring plant corn into standing cereal rye.
Following corn, the Rulons plant or fly on cereal rye and other cover crops.
A long-term investment in better soil structure offsets “erosion events” (Ken’s name for 2-inch rains). They have pattern tiled 91% of their owned acreage with 33% larger-diameter tile mains (0.5-inch coefficients, not 0.375-inch), which reduces nutrient-laden runoff. Higher soil organic matter also translates to 60% better water infiltration than conventionally farmed soil; handy during floods and droughts, NRCS data shows. On rented ground, they negotiate creative cost-share arrangements on tile installation expense, since both parties benefit.
Low-productivity grids and new farms receive poultry manure and municipal biosludge to help restart soil biology. They plan to experiment with biochar in the near future (see bit.ly/_BIOCHAR).