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No-till on heavy clay soils at Kaiser Lake Farms

We’re always looking at how different things work for us, trying to learn and find better ways,” says Eric Kaiser.


November 30, 2011
By Carolyn King

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We’re always looking at how different things work for us, trying to learn and find better ways,” says Eric Kaiser. Through ongoing testing and fine-tuning, the Kaisers have created a crop production system that works for them, and it includes no-till corn. What makes this especially remarkable is that Kaiser Lake Farms Ltd., near Napanee in eastern Ontario, has very heavy clay soils that, to some, might seem only slightly easier to farm than a strip of paved highway. 

KaiserLake  
Most of the soil at Kaiser Lake Farms is a heavy clay, but the Kaisers have succeeded in making no-till work for them.
Photo courtesy of Ted Kaiser.


 

In 1969, Eric and his wife Helen bought the first piece of property where they now farm and set up a layer-pullet operation. These days Eric and son Max run the farm. They still have the layers and pullets but they now produce omega-3 eggs. Over the years, the Kaisers have gradually expanded the farm from the original 300 acres to the current 1200 acres. They have about 950 acres in crops; most of that is for growing feed for their chickens, but about 30 acres is for pick-your-own strawberries and other market garden crops.

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During the past four decades, the Kaisers have made many changes to improve crop production on their unyielding soils, such as adding tile drainage, growing a more varied crop rotation and using no-till. “We evolved into no-till,” says Eric. “Initially we had farmed conventionally, of course, with a mouldboard plow, and spring tillage and planting. But most of our land is very heavy clay, with a clay content over 50 percent. It soon became apparent to me that we couldn’t continue to farm this heavy clay land conventionally; it was getting more and more difficult to work.

“That was in the 1980s, when the Innovative Farmers of Ontario and others were developing the no-till philosophy in Ontario. I became interested and I attended their no-till conferences almost from the beginning.”

After looking into it, he decided to head towards no-till. “First we moved to conservation tillage. We quit mouldboard plowing and started chisel plowing. We stopped doing extensive spring tillage because it was obvious that every wheel mark in the spring was a wheel mark that stayed there. We also changed from continuous corn to a crop rotation, eventually settling on corn, soybeans and wheat.”

A crucial step came in the late 1990s when the Kaisers obtained a new row-unit planter. “I needed a better corn planter, and I needed to quit planting soybeans with a seed drill. We never knew whether the seeds were three inches deep or on the surface with a seed drill.”

They bought a White planter with 30-inch row spacings for corn and 15-inch for soybeans, and they reconfigured it to add a narrower row spacing for wheat. Since then, the Kaisers have modified their planter many times to fine-tune its operation for their needs.

Their planter provides the seed placement accuracy needed for planting into heavy clay soils through any kind of crop stubble. “Once we got that planter, we realized we didn’t need to do conservation tillage; we could just plant,” notes Eric. “With a row unit, you plant one seed at a time, so you maximize the emergence potential of your seed by placing it at the proper depth, in the proper environment and uniformly distributed.”

With better seed placement, they get better crop emergence and better yields. He adds, “We have 20 years of crop insurance records – 10 years of seed drill no-till planting and 10 years with the row planter – that show we have seen a 35 percent yield increase for our wheat by planting with the row unit.”

More than yield benefits
There is another benefit to the more accurate seed placement. Eric explains, “We now plant 130,000 seeds per acre for soybeans. We arrived at that number by doing population plots that vary from 250,000 down to 110,000 seeds per acre at planting time, with a viability of germination of about 80 percent. On only two occasions did we see a yield reduction at 110,000, and we never saw a yield reduction at 130,000. The savings from planting 130,000 seeds per acre instead of 200,000 seeds per acre of Roundup Ready seed is about $25 an acre. If you were on something other than our heavy clay soil, you could probably go down to 100,000 seeds or lower.”

The Kaisers have also done side-by-side comparisons of no-till and conventional till corn, and found no yield difference. Eric says, “I keep hearing suggestions that there’s a yield drag with no-till corn. We have not seen it. Even if we did, we wouldn’t go back to conventional till because the yield drag may happen one year, but if you do tillage on heavy clay you’re going to pay for it eventually.”

To ensure proper seed placement, the Kaisers make planter maintenance a top priority. “We put that planter in the shop every winter, and we put on new disk openers, new seed tube guards, and new anything else it needs,” says Eric. During seeding, they check the planter every time they fill up, and if anything is worn or broken, they replace it right then. “You need planting equipment in first-rate condition. That’s critical to no-till in heavy soils; it’s probably critical to no-till anywhere. Otherwise, it won’t cut residue effectively and it won’t give you the trench profile required for good
seed-to-soil contact.”

Other key parts in the Kaisers’ system
No-till is just one of several components that all fit together into the Kaisers’ overall production system for farming their heavy clay soils.

Tile drainage is essential because of the very poor natural drainage of their soils. Over the years, the Kaisers have been working on narrowing the spacing in their tile drainage system as they could afford it. Eric notes, “On the clay soil, which is relatively flat land, every foot of drain tile increases the average farm yield. We’ve managed to get a lot of tiling on 30-foot centres, and we have some on 20-, 17- and 15-foot. We still have some left on 60-foot and we paid dearly for that this year with the cold, wet May.”

Another major focus is to prevent soil compaction. Eric says, “The only way you could go over heavy clay ground in the spring without causing a yield reduction is with an aircraft! Everything else from an ATV on up causes a yield reduction of some kind.”

So the Kaisers stay off the land in the spring and in the fall when it is wet. They use low-pressure (8 psi) radial tires on their field equipment. At harvest, they leave the grain wagons on driveways at the field edges and carry the grain to the wagons. And they have removed all of the fence-lines between the nine original properties to minimize the number of times their field equipment has to turn.

To improve their soils, the Kaisers apply chicken manure and then grow a cover crop, right after harvesting winter wheat. Eric notes, “Theoretically you’re supposed to apply manure close to when you’re planting the crop to get the maximum nutrients to the crop. But the reality is we’re on very heavy clay soils and you don’t go there in the spring, and it’s better not to go there in the fall. So we harvest the wheat and leave the bulk of the straw. Then we spread the manure and incorporate it in the same pass. Then we spin the cover crop seed on the surface and do a very light tillage pass with the cultivator to plant it.”

Cover crops provide added benefits
The Kaisers have been using various types of cover crops for about 30 years. “These days we seed a multi-species or “cocktail mix” cover crop and add that to the winter wheat volunteers. In late October, we apply glyphosate and kill the cover crop. All but the winter wheat would die in the winter, but we can’t have green stuff out there in the spring on this heavy clay. Then in the spring we plant corn directly into that cover crop residue with our planter, without doing anything to it, and it works for us,” says Eric.

“The cover crop residue prevents the direct impact of rain on the soil surface and reduces erosion. It also provides a lot of root mass in the topsoil so it plants much better than it used to conventionally or when we first started no-till. The cover crop also improves soil health by having a variety of rooting structures in the soil. The roots of each different plant species benefit a different species of soil organism, so the more variety, the better.”

He adds, “I begrudge the tillage we have to do to incorporate the manure. But if we don’t incorporate it we’ll lose the ammonia nitrogen, and the smell will annoy the neighbours – and my wife and me!” 

Kaiser Lake Farms sits on a point of land along the Bay of Quinte and Hay Bay. Eric says, “We’re surrounded by neighbours who have never farmed. We do whatever we can do to minimize our effect on them and on the environment.”

The Kaisers were among the first Ontario farmers to complete an Environmental Farm Plan. Along with no-till and cover cropping, they use other soil conservation practices such as grassed waterways to prevent “brown water” from going into the lake, and they warn their neighbours in advance when they plan to spread manure.

The Kaisers’ willingness to explore new options characterizes all that they do. They have test plots on their farm, both for their own tests and in co-operation with specialists. They participate in producer organizations; for example, Eric was a director of the Innovative Farmers of Ontario (IFAO) and Max is currently president of Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA). They go on farm tours, and sometimes tours visit their own farm. And they attend conferences, like the IFAO annual conference, Southwest Agricultural Conference, FarmSmart, and the National No-Tillage Conference in the US. “I keep going to these conferences figuring sooner or later I’ll learn to farm!” says Eric, with a laugh. “Life is a learning process; if you’re not learning, you’re going backwards.”