Brad Zimmerman openly admits it was daunting when he “was handed the checkbook” to the farm after his father passed away.

Zimmerman, of Groveland, a fifth-generation farmer and Tazewell County Soil and Water Conservation District director, shared his journey into farming and his experiences using cover crops at the recent Illinois SWCD annual conference.

He uses cover crops on all of the family farm’s 300 acres and also operates a custom planting and harvesting company that planted 3,500 acres of row crops this year.

“We must honor our father and grandfather. We’re taught that in the Bible, and we’re supposed to. That’s good, but that doesn’t mean we have to do everything that they did,” Zimmerman said.

“In farming, we’re scared. I was scared when I got the checkbook. I was scared to do anything different. I was scared to mess it up. I was scared that the people would talk about me. I was scared I wouldn’t pick up any more land because I was doing something different. That’s a real fear.

“But we don’t have to be scared to try to do things. We don’t have to do it out front. We can do it in the back 30 acres or whatever.”

Soil conservation and improving soil health has been a part of the Zimmerman farming operation for many years.

“My dad was pretty progressive. He started no-tilling in the late 1980s, and he started doing strip-tilling with anhydrous in the mid-1990s. Dad understood that it was very important to keep our soil covered, which was kind of new in our area, but he was very emphatic about that,” Zimmerman said.

This marks his fifth year using cover crops.

“You could not pay me enough to have me go back to tilling my ground,” Zimmerman said during his presentation, “Learn, unlearn and relearn.”

From the “relearn” perspective, he said, “We can’t continue to farm the way we used to. Farming the way we used to is going to lead to bad things.

“Farming is stressful. How can we make sure we eliminate some of those stresses out of our lives, some of it has to do with doing things in terms of fertility.

“Maybe if we could release some of that fertility from the soil we wouldn’t need to pay for as many inputs.

“Sometimes we as people in general don’t know what we need. We don’t know what’s best for us. You guys know what’s best for us. We don’t want to end up like Egypt.

“Egypt used to have a phenomenal farm economy. They don’t anymore. Greece used to have an awesome robust farming economy. They don’t anymore. If we don’t take care of our soils, we won’t anymore.”

Spread The Word

Zimmerman encouraged SWCD members to preach the good word of preserving soils and to contact their constituents and invite them to local field days. There’s a momentum building in the soil health realm with many publications featuring stories about the topic.

Zimmerman quoted a friend that said, “Everything in ag is good for somebody, just not necessarily the farmer.”

“Somebody benefits off of potash. If you use more potassium, you get higher yields and you’re going to sell more potassium. Nobody benefits off of soil health. Nobody is getting paid because you have better soil health except for the farmer,” Zimmerman said.

“Soil health — building your soils back up — is good for the farmer. Having better water infiltration is good for the farmer.”

Zimmerman said those who want to look into utilizing cover crops are not alone and there are many reputable resources on social media and in publications that can help.

Earlier Planting

Having cover crops helped him get into the fields to plant sooner this spring after record precipitation.

“My corn got planted on May 16. It was the first corn that we planted on our whole farm. It was planted into green annual ryegrass, and we had how many inches of rain in March and April. It was the first field that was ready,” Zimmerman said.

“My soybeans were planted into waist high green cereal rye the next day. They were the first soybeans that we planted ahead of all of the rest of them that were chiseled last fall or no-tilled last fall, vertical tilled this spring or field cultivated this spring. The fields with the cover crops were the warmest and driest fields. So, we don’t need tillage to make sure it’s fit in the spring.”

Fact Or Fiction

Zimmerman addressed the following crop management beliefs — right or wrong.

A bushel of corn requires 1.2 pounds of nitrogen. Zimmerman said that needs to be reduced to 0.7 pounds per bushel.

“We don’t have to use anhydrous. We can spoon-feed the crop. We don’t have to put it all on in the fall. We all probably know somebody that puts on 180 pounds of fall anhydrous, but that doesn’t make sense to me when there are better ways. Back in the day, yes, you had to. But now that’s not good for the farmer. That’s good for the co-op because they’ve got the huge infrastructure put in place to do that,” he said.

Balanced nutrition leads to healthier plants. Phosphorous effects calcium and zinc. Potassium effects manganese.

“When you can use soil tests and tissue tests to get these in balance, you can cut down on the amount of nitrogen that you need. You can cut down on the amount of water you need. You can make plants more efficient,” Zimmerman said.

Tillage is needed for a good seedbed.

“I found this slide that says, ‘what is tillage? It’s the mechanical modification of soil structure.’ I guess I never thought about it that way. We talk about having good soil structure, having good aggregation, having good water infiltration. Tillage is the mechanical modification of soil structure. That’s not building that soil; it’s tearing it down. It’s introducing air into the soil and is burning up the glomalin — the biotic glues that hold those aggregates together,” Zimmerman said.

“You don’t have to do tillage to have a good seedbed. No-till and cover crops have a multitude of benefits over tillage.”

We must incorporate our fertilizer.

“Another excuse to do tillage is to say we need to incorporate our fertilizer. Nature has provided us with everything we need. Earthworms will take your phosphorous and your potassium and they’ll drive it down into those holes, they’ll eat it and they’ll poop it out and make it available for your roots. So, we don’t need tillage, we need earthworms,” Zimmerman said.

We must use commercial fertilizer to maintain our soils.

“I’m not going to say you can get away from commercial fertilizer 100%, but you can do it with less. We’ve got 40,000 pounds of potassium and 9,000 pounds of phosphorous in the top six inches of our soils. The only problem is we can’t get to it. So, how do you make that available to your plants? Biology will make that available. Roots, plant exudates and root acids will make that available,” Zimmerman said.

Healthy soils make healthy plants.

“That’s true, but I think even more important than that is that healthy plants make healthy soils. When you have healthy plants you have more roots. Because you have healthy plants you draw in a make more carbon and have more available to your plants. Because you have healthy plants, you make roots go down further to access those nutrients. Because you have healthy plants, you have more sugars that go into the soil and you feed more microbes and you have more bugs,” Zimmerman said.

“We don’t talk much about the biological, but biology is going to trump everything. Mother Nature is going to win. She’s proven that time and time again with earthquakes and floods and hurricanes. We can try to contain her but we won’t stop here. Biology is a powerful thing. It’s what makes soil, soil and not rocks. Encourage that biology to grow.”

From an economic standpoint, Zimmerman said cover crops can be both profitable and improve soil at the same time. He referred to trials conducted by Rulon Farms in Indiana.

The research calculated the cover crop seed costs, seeding, labor, fuel, tractor hours, erosion reduction, soil biology, fertilizer savings, drought tolerance, yield and soil quality. The most recent study showed a $69.17 per acre gain with cover crops.