Ken Rulon and his family are sold on crop production techniques that use advanced environmentally oriented practices to improve soil properties and ultimately generate profits. He and his family grow corn and soybeans and run a hog operation at Arcadia, IN. The operation, in the family since 1869, involves Ken, his brother Roy and cousin Rodney.
With the help of the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other conservation programs, most of their crops are no-tilled and feature a cover crop to prevent erosion and capture excess nutrients. EQIP helps reduce fertilizer inputs by offsetting manure injection into the soil before planting.
“EQIP makes making the right decision easier,” contends Rulon, stressing that it helps us reduce runoff and boost a “long-term carbon equation” that relates to producing more soil organic material.
EQIP is popular, says Kerry Smith, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in Tipton County, IN. There are more than 46.1 million acres enrolled in EQIP programs nationwide in 2010.
The 92,000-plus contracts were receiving more than $2.56 billion in federal EQIP dollars to help farmers fund efforts to enhance soil, improve irrigation, promote better grazing and other conservation practices.
Rulon and others must use practices that meet NRCS technical standards adapted for local conditions. EQIP may provide payments up to 75% of the estimated incurred costs and income foregone of certain conservation practices and conservation activity plans.
“We are blessed to be in the right spot (for crop production), due to rich topsoil and good production climate,” Rulon says. “Our yields are seldom great, but they’re never bad. They’re consistent; a five-year average of 180.6 bu. for corn and 58.9 bu. for soybeans.”
However, since they went no-till nearly 20 years ago, those yields are still about 15% above the country average, the same difference that existed in 1992. No-till works because virtually all fields are tiled to promote drainage. “Laying tile fixes a field for 50-100 growing seasons,” Rulon says. “And we complement the tile program with EQIP payments.”
For the 400 acres in their EQIP-based program, the Rulons incorporate hog manure into their soil. “We use a Hydro no-till injection bar with narrow vertical shanks to slice into the soil,” Rulon says. “We couple that with a drag-line system to apply the liquid manure 3 in. under the soil surface. We can plant corn right behind the system.”
The system costs the Rulons about $10/acre extra; EQIP pays for half of that.
“We help our soil quality, prevent having any discharge from the hog farm and don’t have to apply any additional nitrogen (N),” notes Rulon. “These are not things you have to do. They just make a lot of sense.”
The conservation program also involves cover crops of either tillage radishes, oats, peas or ryegrass. No-till, cover-crop and manure-injecting programs enable the Rulons to grow corn using 50 lbs. less N than university recommendations “They promote strong organic development and worm populations to help aerate the soil,” he says.
Normal year routines
In normal years the Rulons plan to plant cover crops in 25-35% of their acres. “But for 2010 we had a fabulous fall, with dry weather through most of it,” Rulon says, “so that we could plant a cover crop over 65-70% of our acres. They will help maintain crop residue, prevent soil erosion and limit nutrient runoff.”
While the late summer and fall were dry, early summer rains dumped nearly a foot of precipitation on the Rulon operation in late June. “In one week we had a 3-in. rain, another 3-in. rain, then a 4-in rain,” Rulon says.
"This year (2010) the big benefit of the tiles was in the sidehill areas where yields were well above average, helping to offset the 5% low-lying areas that were destroyed by the flooding. Overall, we had record bean yields, and corn yields were only 10 bu. below average."
Smith says the EQIP program encourages growers to implement or install conservation practices. “The program is designed to offset the cost of adapting new and expensive practices.
“In Tipton County (for example), through EQIP, we’ve been able to promote practices such as no-till, cover crops, nutrient and pest management, animal waste storage facilities and animal mortality facilities.
“Cover crops are helping many growers prevent sheet and rill erosion, break up soil compaction and sequester nutrients. They help farmers capture residual N left in the field after a harvest or when a field has had a manure application.”
Smith says cover crops are able to prevent soluble N from running out tile lines into water bodies. “Most of the captured N will be available for other cash crops to utilize which can save the farmer money,” he says
Along with their farm, the Rulons also install tile for area growers. “The dry fall weather should provide about 60 days of good tiling weather,” Rulon says. “We’ll hopefully pattern tile 300-400 acres leading into 2011.”
Rodney Rulon plays a big part in the conservation program. “Along with EQIP, we also take part in the CSP (Conservation Stewardship Program),” he says. “The function of the practices we’ve incorporated is to develop a good stewardship program. We take extra steps to do tissue testing to enhance our N and other nutrient management.
“The CSP provides us with from $10 to $25/acre on parts of the farm. It ties into our philosophy that the right environmental decision is almost always the right economic decision in the long run,” he says.
Another conservation practice also helped prevent excessiverunoff. “We regularly plant filter strips (small grains grasses)beside fields which lie along heavy drainage ditches or creeks,”Rulon adds.