Marilyn and Bob Christie are the Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Outstanding Conservationists of 2019. They have been using cover crops on their crop and cattle farm outside Utica, and recently switched to no-till planting.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Bob and Marilyn Christie’s fields were conspicuously green this spring. Most cropland was black dirt speckled with golden stubble. Theirs was unusually, glaringly green. “The neighbors were talking,” Marilyn joked.
Their farm stuck out like a sore thumb because the Christies recently switched to no-till agriculture and, for the first time this spring, “planted green.” That means they planted their cash crop into a living cover crop — in this case, planting corn into a field of still-growing cereal rye. “The corn was in there,” Bob said. “You couldn’t see it. All you saw was this massive field of green.”
For Bob’s son-in-law, D.J. Mueller, who had been researching planting green at every opportunity, things were going according to plan. “He was completely comfortable with it,” Bob said. For someone who spent most of his decades-long farming career planting into black earth worked up into a soft seed bed, Bob admitted, “It was strange for me.”
Strange as it may have felt, the corn is doing well and no-till planting into a green cover crop allowed him to get the corn planted sooner, Bob said. “This year, it was a wet year, but those living roots take up some of that moisture and you’re not dealing with mud,” Winona County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) Resource Specialist Lance Klessig explained.
Once the corn was established, the Christies terminated the rye with Roundup and the herbicide-resistant corn kept on growing. This way, their soil was never without living roots. “God didn’t want the ground bare, that’s why he gave us weeds,” Bob quipped.
The Christies have been employing more traditional conservation practices for years and years: grass waterways and filter strips to stabilize the most erosion-prone parts of fields and catch any sediment coming off, experimenting with different nitrogen application rates and side dressing to minimize nitrogen loss and pollution. More recently, they started planting cereal rye into bean fields after harvest and letting the cover crop hold soil and nutrients in place through the fall, winter, and into spring. Rather than applying fertilizer all at once, the cover crops hold onto the nutrients already in the field and let go of those nutrients at the right time, Klessig said. “When my corn is ready to use it,” Bob added.
There are other benefits, too. “You couldn’t hardly find a weed in there until we terminated the cover,” Bob said of his fields. He explained that some of his land has pretty sandy soil that dries out easily. “One of my biggest hurdles to high yields is dry weather,” Bob stated. Growing cover crops has helped increase his soil organic matter, adding absorbent humus to the sand. “To me, to get that organic matter raised in the soil, it’ll just be a source of holding that water in the soil so my crop doesn’t fizzle later in the season,” he said.
In addition to holding water during dry spells, cover crops and higher organic matter help soils absorb more rain in a downpour. The average tilled cropland around Winona County can absorb a half-inch to an inch of rain per hour, Klessig said. “Already, with just a couple years of cover crops and one full year of no-till, [the Christies] have gone from 1/2-1 inch to 3-4 inches of rain in an hour. To me, that’s a game changer,” he said.
Bob added that, while building organic matter, the cover crops capture carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. “When we don’t till, our soil just becomes a huge carbon sponge. I think there’s a potential to have an impact on climate change,” he said.
Christie said he still gets good yields on his fields, and instead of trying to set yield records, the new practices have allowed him to focus on profitability and cutting his costs for fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, and the amount of time he spends on a tractor pulling a disc plow. “I think the economy for farmers that it’s been for the last few years — I’ve farmed 47 years, and I’ve never seen where it’s at now and had it last so long,” Marilyn said. “So farmers have to turn to this because we’re not getting help other places.”
This summer, the SWCD Board named the Christies the Outstanding Conservationists of 2019, an honor the district gives to local farmers and landowners each year.
“They’ve always been good farmers,” SWCD Board Supervisor Bill Rowekamp said of the Christies. “Bob has always been a conservationist, and now, you know, with his son-in-law coming on and him being more interested, not only in just general conservation but, you know, the cover crop program and stuff. The results that they’re seeing out there just made them a very good candidate.”
“After 50 years, I’ve done things a certain way, but to me, this is really the new horizon … cover crops and no-till — I think it might have more potential than anything else we’ve done in the past 50 years,” Bob stated.
The Christies participated in SWCD cost-share programs for some of their cover crops and credited the Land Stewardship Project for educating them on soil health practices for many years.
“We feel we own the land, but really the Lord owns it … We don’t have control over it for eternity. So we have to take care of it if it’s going to have any quality when we hand it off to the next generation,” Bob said.