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Patience Is Key for a Farmer Named Waite

by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, March 15, 2024

Ryan Waite has been growing no-till soybeans for 20 years, but, regarding conservation farming, he wasn't "all in" until just five years ago.

During that short time span, the Steuben County farmer says conservation farming—no-till practices along with cover crops on all acres—is producing real results in the form of improved soil health, plus financial savings from using less fertilizer and fuel.

And, he's still learning.

Waite farms nearly 1,000 acres with his father, Ronald, in the Angola area.

"All our ground that goes to soybeans, after corn, is always put to cereal rye," he said. "The cereal rye is pretty hardy."

He added that cereal rye can grow on some of the hardest soil types.

"We go in as soon as we're done shelling the corn," he said. "We spread it and then we take a vertical tillage tool and just hit it real lightly, just enough to chop up the stalks and beat the seed in."

The vertical tillage tool leaves all the residue on the surface, so it's not considered to be a tillage device. But Waite said it does an effective job of aiding the residue's decomposition process and incorporating the seed into the soil.

The rye grows rapidly in the spring, reaching knee-high by planting time. Waite plants the cash crop, corn or soybeans, into the green cover crop. Then he makes another pass to terminate the rye.

What happens next is the beauty of this farming method. The cover crop dies, leaving a layer of organic matter that holds moisture and suppresses weeds.

Cereal rye is Waite's No. 1 cover crop. It can be seeded later in the fall than most other cover crops. Its fibrous root system can scavenge nitrogen and provide aeration for rainfall to penetrate deep into the root zone. Rye also acts as a natural herbicide and is toxic to certain weed species. Other benefits include reducing soil erosion and providing organic matter for the soil.

"We pretty much have zero erosion at this point," he said, crediting his use of cover crops and no-till farming.

Waite said he has to be careful that his cover crop doesn't take up too much moisture during a dry spring, or else it might prevent the corn or soybean crop from getting adequate moisture at the start.

On some fields, Waite uses a blend of triticale, vetch, barley and even tillage radish.

"I play around with stuff every year, because I'm still learning," he said. "I've been doing this for four or five years, full-out, and I'm still learning. It is an evolving game."

Waite said he turned to no-till and cover crops out of necessity. For many years, he saw how rainy weather prevented him from planting his crops on time, and how dry weather took a toll on yields. He said cover crops provide a buffer to whatever Mother Nature dishes out.

He considered adding irrigation to his crop fields, but the cost was too expensive.

"I just did a bunch of reading," he said, describing his decision to step away from traditional farming. "The cover (crop) helps ground moisture stay in longer."

If that sounds like Waite views cover crops as an alternative to irrigation, that would be correct.

"That's part of my thought process," he said. "The other part is I started reading a lot on soil microbial activities and started studying that a little bit. I believe in it—it's real."

He said plowing and other forms of tillage destroy the microbial activity in the soil. In a no-till situation, the microbes break down decaying plant material and convert it into nutrients—potash, nitrogen and phosphate—for the cash crop. Through his own research, Waite has come alive to the important role soil microbes play in soil fertility.

"The more of that (microbial activity) you have, the less fertilizer potentially you're going to have to use at some point," he said. "We're seeing benefits already. Our commercial fertilizer usage is dropping slowly."

Waite said he tests his fields every year to measure the improvements in soil quality. That at gives him important feedback about whether his new system is working.

The changes don't all happen in one year; it takes time. Therefore, conservation farming is best suited for those who are willing to wait.

"Our organic matter is starting to come up a little bit," he said. "That's why I soil sample every year, because I like to watch it. It takes several years to raise that organic matter a (percentage) point. So, it's not going to happen overnight."

He admits that farming with cover crops can be tricky. Adequate moisture is needed so the seeds can germinate and get a good start. Last fall, the conditions were rather dry, resulting in spotty stands.

"It's starting to green up," he said last week while surveying his fields. "But you'd be surprised. It'll get up pretty tall by the time I plant into it. It doesn't look like much now."

Waite, 50, serves as an advisor on the Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation board. He and his wife Rebecca have two sons and two grandsons.

Water quality is an important issue in Steuben County, which has 101 lakes. One of Waite's crop fields is located just a stone's throw away from Lake James. He believes conservation farming is important to protect the quality of those lakes.

"I did a seminar at the farm last summer, basically talking to the Steuben County Lakes Council about cover crops and explaining to them how they work."

In addition to cover crops and no-tilling, Waite uses filter strips around waterways.

Farming is actually Waite's second job. During the day, he works as a mechanical contractor for Pranger Enterprises Inc. He has held that job for 30 years.

"I'm a night farmer," he said. "I will take some vacation from work in the spring and the fall."

Because of his limited time, Waite said no-tilling reduces the need for multiple passes in fields. No-tilling also cuts down on fuel costs. Waite is also seeing better yields, especially on corn.

Last year, soybean yields were off, but that was due to dry weather in September. Waite said his corn yields were "phenomenal."

There are many variables in a no-till system, such as planting depth, conditions at planting and when the cover crop is terminated.

Regardless of the farming style, weather is always the biggest variable.

There aren't many farmers in Steuben County who practice conservation farming in the way that Waite does. Some grow cover crops on a portion of their farms, while others follow the no-till method. Some remain true to no-tilling for several years but then, for whatever reason, plow up the ground—disturbing the microbial activity—only to start the process over again.

In 2022, in recognition of their commitment to conservation farming, Ryan and his father were honored with the River Friendly Farmer Award by the state of Indiana.

Barely five years into conservation farming, Waite said he is pleased with his decision to practice what some people call "ugly farming."

He listed several reasons for making the switch: water conservation, soil health, erosion and increased efficiency with time and money.

It's not a stretch to say Waite is passionate about conservation farming. However, he knows he represents a minority viewpoint. Despite the well-documented benefits of cover crops, most farmers are reluctant to embrace them.

"Give it a try," he said in his advice to other farmers. "That's the biggest thing I'm going to tell you. You may have had a bad experience with it, but don't quit on it. You have to be committed and learn."

Waite said it's not unusual for a curious farmer to stop and ask him why he plants seed into a green cover. He welcomes the questions.

"I'm an open book," he said. "I'm not an expert by any means. I'm still learning myself, but I can tell you what works and what doesn't work for me."

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