Scientists have determined that agriculture is the source of more than 80 percent of the phosphorus that reaches Lake Erie and contributes to harmful algal blooms. This series shows how area farmers make choices during the year to both grow a profitable crop and protect the environment that is their livelihood.
Les Seiler and his brother Jerry farm 1,500-1,600 acres in Fulton County near the Village of Fayette. They are in the Tiffin River watershed which drains to the Maumee River. The land is lightly rolling and has a high water table. Les Seiler says that more than 30 soil types have been identified in the immediate area including what he calls “water sand,” a mucky gray soil that he compares to quick sand. The Seiler philosophy of agriculture emphasizes development and maintenance of healthy soil; they use several best management practices to keep the soil on the land with as little disturbance as possible and to ensure that the soil holds the right mixture of water and nutrients. They have run a continuous no-till operation since 1986 and over the years have seen healthy changes in their fields including higher water-holding capacity, increased organic matter, and more biological activity including more beneficial insects.
“Planting cover crop takes a lot of management, but it fits with continuous no-till. I think cover crops are the missing link for soil health. It makes the biological system work.”
– Les Seiler
Many farmers have a six- or seven-month growing season. They plant corn and soybeans in late April or early May and harvest in October leaving the fields without growing or planted vegetation all winter and into early spring. The Seilers keep their fields growing all year around. Les says, “Rain that falls on a living field is pulled up into the plants. Less water runs off.” Rain that stays on the field feeding a crop is not carrying nutrients to area waterways.
Wheat is a cash crop that is planted in October, goes dormant in later winter, then grows quickly in the spring and is harvested in early July. Les is convinced that planting more wheat would go a long way toward keeping phosphorus out of the waterways. There used to be 30,000 acres of wheat grown in Fulton County. That crop is now down to 10,000 acres. One reason is financial; while corn is subsidized and pays well, wheat pays poorly. However, Les Seiler grows wheat as much for its benefits to the soil as for its commercial value. An over-winter crop continues to absorb water and keeps the soil active. Les says that when insects, bacteria and other elements in the soil have a crop growing, the field stays healthier. When the wheat is harvested, they leave the stem (or straw) in the ground and allow it to be decayed by insects and bacteria living in the soil, further enriching the soil.
All fields – wheat, corn, and soybean – are interseeded with a non-cash cover crop blend after harvest giving the fields a constant growing cover. The cover crop mixture includes grasses, clover, and radishes. Most cover crops die off in late winter, decay, and return nutrients to the soil. A crop also functions to hold soil and water in place.
Diversity of Product
Like most farmers in the Midwest, Les Seiler farms mostly corn and soybeans. In 2018, he planted about 550 acres of corn, 800 of soybeans, and 120 acres of alfalfa during the summer. The alfalfa can be harvested two to four times and is processed for animal feed. Winter crops are wheat and, new in 2018, barley.
Barley is a grain that is planted in the fall and harvested in June. Les reports that his entire crop was purchased by a malting company that processes barley for the craft beer industry. The barley was a good fit for Seiler’s business plan because it is a winter crop that he can sell (as opposed to cover crops which he cannot), and because he can plant and harvest it with machinery he already owns. Another bonus of the barley crop is that he can get a second planting out of that field by putting in corn or beans after the barley harvest.
Continuous No-till Farming
Many of the fields the Seiler family manages have been no-till for 30 or more years. The Seilers are convinced that reducing the disturbance of the soil and keeping organic matter in place is key to healthy fields and good yields. When fields are continuously tilled and the soil broken up, the good soil breaks down into fine bits. This loose, light soil erodes easily. It can blow away or run off the field with rain water or snow melt. The topsoil that erodes can carry phosphorus with it, which contributes to harmful algal blooms. Les explains that bare dirt also loses organic matter. The loss of organic matter reduces the soil’s ability to hold on to valuable nutrients and helpful insects, and to retain water.
On fields that are bare, winter weather can result in gullies and washouts. In the spring, a farmer can spend a lot of time and expense filling those gullies and grading the fields to prepare them for planting. A no-till field is less susceptible to erosion and needs less maintenance. To keep soil compaction and disruption to a minimum, Les Seiler says he “tiptoes” on his fields, keeping seed bins half full, for example, to lighten the weight if the ground is wet.
Managing the flow of water is a primary concern on agricultural fields, particularly in northwest Ohio and the Great Black Swamp area. All farms in the region are tiled, with buried drainage that directs excess water to nearby ditches and waterways. Those tiles have somewhat different roles depending on the topography of the fields. Farms in Lucas and Wood counties can be as flat as a pool table. In those situations, water control structures are increasingly used to block the field tiles during dry periods to hold water and keep it accessible to plant roots. In Fulton County where Les Seiler farms, the property is more rolling, with some inclines too steep to plow. Les says water control structures are not appropriate for most of his land. In rolling fields, all the water is moving and farmers want to manage that movement. They want slow moving water that goes where they want it to go, staying at the high spots long enough to water the plants while not flooding the low spots.
To direct rain water and snowmelt, some of the fields that the Seilers farm have waterways planted with grass augmented with stone. These are meandering paths where the water naturally flows. By shaping and planting a waterway, they are able to keep stormwater from causing erosion damage. “It’s true we take some land out of use to build a waterway,” said Les Seiler. “But if I didn’t have it, I’d lose all the corn I’d try to plant there anyway, and we’d be losing soil, too.”
He has also built and planted some swales around stormwater culvert intakes. These swales hold stormwater and allow it to percolate into ground water slowly. Planted grasses, clover, and wildflowers in the swale take up some of the water. If the water is high enough, it reaches the stormwater inlet and is directed to area creeks and rivers.
In one large section of land that they farm, the Seilers had a problem creek. In 665 feet of length, the creek dropped 11 feet, creating a lot of water speed during storms. Due to the drop and soil composition, the creek had carved out a narrow, deep trench and every storm caused steep banks to erode and crumble. They were losing soil. Sediment was being discharged into the river and eventually into Lake Erie. Sediment itself is a pollutant because it can smother habitat in streambeds. But it also carries phosphorus and other nutrients. In a cooperative project with the Nature Conservancy, Conservation Action Project, USDA, Fulton Soil and Water Conservation District, and Fulton County Engineer’s Office, the natural creek was maintained, but the land around it was modified to create a wide two-stage ditch that slows and manages the water. Now the flat bottom is about 35 feet wide. It steps up to a wide shelf with a 2.5:1 slope and the top is about 70 feet wide. This riparian area between fields contains a wide range of plants including grasses, reeds and rushes, clover, and flowering shrubs. In August it was alive with birds, bees, dragonflies, butterflies, and other pollinators.
This summer, some of the Seilers’ neighbors are worried about aphids in the soybeans. The aphids attack beans and drain away critical fluids just as the beans are ripening. Some of the neighbors are spraying insecticide rather than risk the crop loss. For now, Les Seiler is waiting. He wants to preserve their beneficial insects and doesn’t want to take out the good bugs with the bad ones. Lady bugs and dragonflies are predators that like to eat aphids. Bees and butterflies are pollinators that Les Seiler likes to support. Bacteria and fungus in the soil, which would also be affected by insecticides, perform valuable tasks during the growing year. Because the Seilers have planted riparian strips, these fields have a lot of diversity in insect life. Les said that it’s his dream to not have to use any insecticide but to have such a healthy property that his crops can resist infestation and disease.
A Continuous No-till Farmer’s Thoughts on Lake Erie
Les Seiler says that farmers in the western Lake Erie basin need to take bigger steps to protect Lake Erie. He has some ideas to incentivize best management practices. He strongly believes that keeping live cover on the fields – planting cover crops – does work. He suggests that wheat could be subsidized. It’s good for the land, we need to protect the land, why not incentivize people to grow it? He suggests that with incentives, creative people can find more uses for wheat they way we have found more uses for subsidized corn (as ethanol, as oils, etc.).
Seiler says we should encourage new markets and other innovation. A lot of farmers do their job the way they’ve always done it, but there is room for new techniques and new strategies that could be profitable while protecting the environment. In Fulton County some of the farmers and business interests tried to attract the barley malting industry. While they weren’t successful in getting a firm to set up business in the county, farmers did find a market for their barley.
Les Seiler and his brother are farming with time-intensive strategies, spending more money on cover crops and more time in managing the soil. However, he is sure that his strategies are building a healthy ecosystem that is resilient, which provides good yield, and which protects the soil and water.
Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments | www.tmacog.org