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Dan Forgey - Mixologist

Monday, January 6, 2014
filed under: Minimum Till/No-Till

Dan Forgey has been referred to as a “master of mixology.” No, he’s not a bartender; far from it. Rather, that designation is a recognition of the extensive knowledge he has accumulated through the years in the realm of no-till cropping rotations and cover crop utilization.

As agronomy manager for Cronin Farms of Gettysburg, S.D., Forgey works with about 8,500 acres of cropland for owners Mike and Monty Cronin. Monty, the operation’s general manager, also oversees their 850 head of cattle, while brother Mike’s duties include all planting operations. Forgey, who has been with the Cronin family for nearly 45 years, focuses on crop production planning and implementation, including fertilization and spraying.

He first joined Dan Cronin, father of Mike and Monty, back in the days of conventional farming, when a third of their cropland was fallowed in any given year. “Then we went from one-third fallow to one-fourth, and we thought that was really daring,” Forgey recalls. “We thought we were good farmers because we kept our fallow black, we kept it clean.”

That changed a couple decades ago, as by 1993 Cronin Farms had transitioned into a 100% no-till operation. They were not alone. A 2006 NRCS survey indicated that 90% of Potter County crop acreage was under no-till; today, Forgey believes, it’s closer to 95%.

Optimizing soil moisture was a major motive for the transition, in this area where long-term annual precipitation averages about 18.5 inches. Like another well-known South Dakota no-till producer, Rick Bieber of Trail City (featured in The Sunflower’s March/April 2013 issue), Forgey contends the bottom line is not how much moisture one receives; rather, it comes down to how efficiently the moisture is managed.

That’s where soil health — including the use of cover crops — comes into play. “We have to have our ground set up to capture the moisture,” Forgey states. “Whatever we do takes into account the health of our soil and how we can improve it.

“So we’re not just no-till; we really believe in minimizing soil disturbance — leaving the soils alone.” That tenet extends to their use of a Deere 1770 NT unit with Martin floating row cleaners for sunflower and corn. “We don’t use a high-disturbance drill; we want to leave as much residue on top of the ground as possible,” Forgey says.

Increased organic matter also is a big part of the equation. “The more organic matter you have, the more moisture the soil will hold,” Forgey notes. “The organic matter acts like a sponge — and that’s a big benefit.” The Cronin fields currently average about 4.1% organic matter, up from the 3.1 measured in their earlier years of soil sampling. That has been an important contributor to the soil’s improved water-holding capacity, Forgey says — and thus crop yield potential. It’s also an area where continued improvement ranks high on the priority list.

Which brings the discussion around to diversity — cropping diversity. It’s one of the three legs — along with no-till and cover crops — comprising the stool of success for Cronin Farms. “We don’t have a single crop where we say, ‘Boy, that’s our [mainstay] crop!’ ” Forgey says, “because we believe in the cropping rotation.” The current list includes spring wheat, winter wheat, corn and sunflower, along with field peas, lentils and soybeans. Given the farm’s 850-head cow-calf operation, forages are also a big part of the system, including sudan grass, teff grass and alfalfa. “We’re big believers in diversity,” Forgey affirms. “And the more diversity, the better the ground likes it.”

Sunflower has been part of the Cronin formula for many years. The crop is typically grown in a four-year rotation following spring wheat, winter wheat and corn. Standard yield goals for their three variable-rated field zones are 2,600, 2,800 and 3,000 lbs/ac. (Forgey will sometimes nudge that last one up to 3,200, depending upon soil moisture levels.) “We’re 95% variable-rated,” he says. “We’re not ‘saving’ fertilizer; we’re just placing it where it needs to be. And sunflower will respond to fertilizer just as well as — if not better than — anything else we can plant.”

That’s one reason for sunflower’s standard spot in the rotation, behind corn. “Those sunflower roots go deep. Some guys say, ‘I don’t like to plant sunflower because those plants go down and get that deep moisture and use up excess nitrogen,’ ” Forgey observes. “I agree with that. But if you don’t have a crop that can go down and get it, what use is it? Sunflower is a scavenger — and a good one.”

The deep sunflower taproot also aids water infiltration upon decomposition, he points out. “We have a lot of earthworms, and we like their high populations for their infiltration effect. But that sunflower taproot also helps the water to infiltrate.”

Sunflower additionally “gives us another broadleaf in the rotation to help with the grasses,” Forgey adds. “Cheatgrass is one of the biggest culprits we have here.” About half of the farm’s sunflower acreage is planted to ExpressSun® hybrids; the other half’s herbicide regimen typically consists of a preplant treatment of Spartan, followed by a pre-emerge application of Prowl H2O right after planting “because if we’ve moved some dirt, we’ll then have some chemical in the row.”

Population-wise, “we’ve done a lot of experimentation on our farm, and we still hang around that 20,000 level,” Forgey says. “We’ve never seen a big benefit from going higher than 20,000 per acre.” Seed placement accuracy with their Deere 1770 is enhanced with Precision Planting technology, including eSet® metering. “There’s not enough attention paid to spacing sunflower,” he contends. “I know if you have gaps, sunflower will compensate. But we don’t want them — and we don’t want doubles, either. You’ll seldom see a double in our sunflower rows.”

Cover crops — the third leg of the Cronin Farms success stool — are sown each year on 10-15% of the farm’s acreage, typically behind winter wheat. Forgey utilizes soil survey data to get a good handle on a given quarter’s water-holding capacity. “Then we go through the ‘math thing’ to estimate [moisture volume] from the time the wheat gets harvested until the next year’s corn starts using it (i.e., around June 1),” he explains. “So let’s say from August 1 through June 1 of the following year we accumulate 10, 11 or 12 inches of moisture — but, that field’s soils can only hold eight inches. In that case, we might as well use the excess to make the soil healthier [by planting a cover crop].”

An abnormally dry year, of course, calls for a different approach. “This year (2013), we didn’t have much excess moisture as of late summer/early fall,” Forgey points out. “So then we say, ‘Let’s not get quite so aggressive with our cover.’ ” In central South Dakota, he adds, the cover crop needs to be seeded by mid-August to allow time for sufficient growth.

When it comes to selecting cover crops, “we do a cocktail mix,” Forgey says. He has experimented with numerous cover crops over the past several years, including cowpeas, turnips, radishes, canola, vetch, rye, flax, oats and forage soybeans. In 2013 the mix consisted of oats (for its fibrous roots), flax (“very microrhizoid-friendly”), and dwarf essex rapeseed (canola) because of the high number of seeds per pound (compared to something like radishes) and low cost. On cover-cropped acreage where cattle are being grazed, radishes and turnips also went into the mix.

Despite his firm belief in the value of cover crops, Forgey simultaneously balks at investing too much in seed cost. “I know of guys who have upwards of $30-35 an acre in their cover crop seed, and we just won’t do that,” he says. “I like ‘cheap.’ ” Pointing to the 2013 mixture of oats, flax and lentils, for instance, “we grow the oats, we grow the Indianhead lentils — the smallest lentil in the market — and then I usually barter for the flax seed with someone else who wants lentils.”

As to fertility rates for the corn crop that follows the cover, “I really believe in soil tests, and we watch our fertility closely,” Forgey observes. “But what we’re finding out is, we really don’t yet know our full yield potential. Moisture is the limiting factor — and that ground cover helps us better utilize the moisture we have.”

In the end, the focus needs to remain on optimizing soil health, reiterates this central South Dakota veteran of no-till/rotation diversity/cover cropping. “We won’t chase price” when it comes to altering rotations, he states. “We do what’s best for the ground, what’s best for next year — and the year after that. We farm for the future, not just the present.

“It all comes back to soil health. The better we take care of our soils, the better they’ll take care of us.” — Don Lilleboe

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