Soil health quest
Wenning’s soil-health journey has been long and winding. He became part owner of the farm after high school graduation in 1976, and then was thrust into the role of decision-maker when his father died in 1987. “We knew we were losing too much soil on our hills, and we were looking at a number of things such as waterways and conservation structures,” he says. “It began to progress from there.”
Wenning experimented with no-till in the 1990s, but since he was still operating a 300-sow hog farm, he continued to use tillage to work manure into the soil. As early as the 1980s, he sowed wheat as a cover crop to control erosion. “Wheat makes great erosion control, but it doesn’t have the root system to suit me,” he says. “I started looking for a better cover crop, and eventually I came across ryegrass.”
He also decided to address drainage issues. “We started grid-tiling this tough clay ground about 12 years ago, and we began intensive soil sampling,” Wenning recalls. “We got our nutrients in line, including lime, and started expanding our cover crops.”
In 2005, Wenning closed down the hog operation. “We then decided to go 100% no-till, and over the past four years we’ve had cover crops on every acre. We somehow find a way to get them on—aerially seeding, drilling or broadcast—because I’ve seen such advantage to cover crops,” he says.
The years of efforts to improve the soil are paying off. “My earthworms are just going nuts out in the fields now, everything is so healthy,” he says. “The ground has just continually gotten mellower, yields have improved, and in years like this, crops have weathered the bad times better.”