Profitability, innovation key to Indiana Smart Agriculture

August 10, 2023

Tom McKinney remembers only once during his childhood when it rained a full 2 1/2 inches in one rainfall event on his family’s farm in Indiana. Born in 1958, he started helping his dad by picking up sticks and other tasks by about 1965.

Today, the corn and soybean farmer says it’s not uncommon to get a 2 1/2-, 4 1/2- or even 6-inch rain. Moisture is a good thing for crop farmers, but too much is disastrous. Downpours that come right at or shortly after planting prevent a good stand of crops. And flooding doesn’t just affect farmers. 

The Big Cicero Creek, which runs through Tipton, Indiana, where McKinney went to high school, has flooded several times in recent years.

Farmers and the community started talking: How can we hold more moisture in the soil?

A speaker came to town and recommended cover crops.

While some were hesitant, McKinney and others started planting a few acres of cover crops. McKinney continues to increase his use of covers each year.

“By golly, we’ve been doing cover crops on several hundred acres, and it seems to be working,” says McKinney, who now co-chairs the Indiana Smart Agriculture Work Group with Don Villwock, a farmer from Edwardsport, Indiana.

Benefits of cover crops

With cover crops, McKinney has seen an increase in soil organic matter—the foundation of his land’s productivity and its ability to hold water. He’s also reduced weed pressure.

“On every single acre where we had a good application and seeding of cover crops, we had zero weeds,” McKinney says. No broadleaves or grasses popped up in the rows of soybeans planted into the knee-high cover crop, which he terminated after the soybean planting.

That “we” refers to himself and a neighbor. His neighbor, whose egg laying operation provides poultry manure that fertilizes his non-GMO soybeans, realized the manure was beginning to introduce weed seed in his crop fields. After hearing about McKinney’s experience, he decided to give cover crops a try. They both fertilized their cover crops with potash, working it in using a vertical tillage tool, McKinney says. And they both were pleased with the results.

Especially, McKinney says, because, in his experience, adding cover crops was good for the environment and his pocketbook.

McKinney saved about $8.50/acre on broadleaf herbicide. That paid for his cereal rye, which cost about $8.50 to $9/acre. Plus he’s getting carbon credits. Last year, he received $9/acre in carbon credits. That’s on top of the land’s improved ability to hold water.

“It was actually a net positive gain in more ways than one,” McKinney says.

About Indiana Smart Agriculture

McKinney is not alone in seeing the economic and environmental benefits of adjusting management practices in today’s world, marked by both weather pattern shifts that affect day-to-day life on the farm and increasing societal pressure to decrease the farm’s carbon footprint.

Enter: the Indiana Smart Agriculture Work Group, which McKinney describes as a “collection of like-minded thinkers who want to share solutions that make things better or more efficient” on and off the farm.

“We’ve gathered a group of really experienced sustainable farmers that have been doing conservation practices for a number of years in various ways of building soil,” says Don Villwock, INSA co-chair.

Villwock has no-tilled on his farm in Edwardsport, Indiana, for more than 40 years. He’s used cover crops more than 20. Villwock, too, notes an increasing number of severe storms in his 50 years of farming. Those bring floods, but, on the flip side, he’s also experienced more, prolonged periods of drought. He has installed drainage tile and irrigation to address these climate extremes, and he has focused on building soil health using no-till and cover crops.

In addition to helping him improve his soil’s water-holding capacity, no-till cut his fuel costs in third, enabled him to go from maintaining five tractors to three, and reduced his labor costs.

Proactive farmer leadership

These are the stories McKinney, Villwock and the INSA Work Group hope to share with producers across the state, to encourage and inspire them to maintain or increase yields and profitability while improving the environment and meeting societal demands. They plan to use hard data, “not just anecdotes and feel-good claims,” Villwock says, that will give producers the chance to see first-hand what is working (and not working) for their neighbors.

“It’s not for us to tell another farmer what to do,” Villwock says, “but we also know this climate change we’re facing. We need to be proactive. We need to do more with less.”

McKinney agrees, saying now is the time for farmers to “collectively think on our own together,” without mandates from the government.

“You do something now on your own or someone will do it for you,” McKinney says. “That’s the main thing here. We’re doing it on our own. We’re asking each other, ‘What are some alternatives? Where can I find information to prove these things or even my own ideas?’ And from our own experiences, we’re showing fellow producers the results, replicated across multiple years in the same fields with different weather patterns and soil profiles.”

Join Indiana Smart Agriculture

The Indiana Smart Agriculture Work Group is made up of Indiana farmers and research and industry partners. The message is spreading, with McKinney, Villwock and other INSA members sharing to groups across the state, including the Indiana Poultry Association and Indiana Soybean Alliance. If you or someone you know in Indiana are interested in joining or learning more from innovative farmers in Indiana, contact Don Villwock, farmerdon72@live.com, or Tom McKinney, tommckinney@aol.com

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