At A Glance
Summary of Operation
soybeans, wheat and cover crop seed on 600 acres
and troublesome soils. While his
land is relatively flat, Rich Bennett contends
with a range of challenging soils. Yellow sands
with less than 2 percent organic matter are vulnerable
to wind erosion and dry out quickly during drought.
At the other extreme, lakebed clays are slow to
drain in spring, making timely planting difficult.
Focus on production
instead of profit. Bennett remembers
the mindset with which he approached farming in
the late 1970s. “We were only concerned
about producing more bushels, not more profit,”
he admits. “One year, I got a recommendation
from my fertilizer dealer that cost me $25,000
on our 300 acres.”
Dad always used rye cover crops after row crops
and a mix of red clover and sweetclover after
wheat to keep the soil from blowing,” recalls
Bennett. “But I thought they were a big
nuisance and got rid of them as soon as I could.”
Two decades ago, conventional tillage machinery
was not adapted to shredding and burying cover
crops, and Bennett did not find it efficient to
grow covers. Moreover, he had to balance time
spent on livestock enterprises with off-farm work
as a commissioner for Henry County, Ohio.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 8 to 10
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
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Fax (301) 504-5207
Bennett’s father, Orville, purchased the first 40 acres
of what is now Bennett Farm in 1948. Rich left a teaching
job to farm full time with his father in 1972. By then, the
farm had grown to 300 acres. The Bennetts also finished 50
steers a year and ran a small farrow-to-finish hog operation.
The hog operation helped them pay the bills, but Bennett soon
saw that there was no way the farm could support them unless
they started doing things differently. Change came slowly
to Bennett Farm. In the mid-’80s, Bennett attended a
sustainable farming workshop sponsored by the nonprofit Rodale
Institute. He was skeptical.
“I only registered for the first day,” Bennett
remembers. “But I came back for the second day. The
workshop helped me get the confidence to try to cut back on
my fertilizer rates.”
He tried reducing his phosphorous and potassium applications
on a few acres at first. He saw no difference in yields, and
soon trimmed applications on his whole farm. “Today
I spend about the same on fertilizer as I did before I cut
back,” he says. “But now that fertilizer covers
600 acres instead of 300.”
Focal Point of Operation — Cropping systems
Bennett is a cautious innovator. New practices have to prove
their value in on-farm research plots or on small acreages
before he adopts them. But those that work soon spread to
his whole farm. Bennett’s three-year corn-soybean-wheat
rotation marries the conservation benefits of cover crops
and no-till. Nearly all his acreage is protected by covers
After the Rodale Institute workshop, Bennett became a cooperator
in the institute’s on-farm research network. He learned
how to execute carefully designed on-farm research plots and
used what he learned to reintroduce cover crops to his farm.
“I learned a lot from my experiments,” he says.
“They helped me see that cover crops are not only cost-effective,
but they also help improve the soil.”
Once his experiments convinced him that he could reduce phosphorous
and potassium fertilizer applications with no loss in yields,
he’s slashed his phosphorous and potassium rates by
half. Today, hairy vetch disked in before corn cuts his nitrogen
rate by 75 percent or more, and rye covers help him reduce
herbicide applications on no-till soybeans.
“What’s even more important is that, over the
years, the covers have helped improve my soils and reduce
weed pressure,” Bennett says. “They’ve helped
me cut down on my inputs while keeping my yields high, and
allowed me to take back control of my farm.”
After corn harvest, Bennett broadcasts 2 bushels of rye per
acre with a fertilizer spreader. He then disks lightly or
chops the stalks to ensure enough seed-to-soil contact for
good germination. In spring, he drills Roundup Ready soybeans
in 7-inch rows into the standing rye when it’s about
30 inches tall. He uses a Great Plains drill with double-disc
openers and wheel closers.
“It’s easy to penetrate the rye with this drill
and it doesn’t stir up much soil, which would cause
new weeds to germinate,” Bennett says. He applies 1
quart of Roundup at planting and another quart later in the
season. Most growers add another herbicide on the second spraying,
but Bennett feels the rye helps keep weeds in check enough
that he can forgo the additional herbicide. His beans usually
yield from 40 to 60 bushels per acre, at or above local averages.
Following bean harvest, Bennett drills wheat, which protects
the soil over winter. After he takes off the grain the following
summer, he broadcasts a mix of about 25 pounds of hairy vetch
and 15 pounds of rye per acre, and disks lightly. “I
try to get the vetch in right away and shoot for a lot of
fall growth, because there’s not much time for the vetch
to re-grow in the spring,” he says.
Before corn planting, Bennett kills and incorporates the vetch
with two passes using a disk and roller. He takes a pre-sidedress
soil nitrate test when the corn is 12 inches tall to determine
how much additional nitrogen to apply.
“Now I can pretty much tell what I need just by looking
at the vetch stand,” he says. Most years, he sidedresses
50 pounds of N per acre, 150 pounds less than his usual rate
before using vetch. When stands are particularly lush, he
has reduced his N rate to zero with no yield loss. His harvests
average 165 bushels of corn per acre.
To control weeds in corn, Bennett uses a half-rate Lasso-atrazine
mix, or a half rate of Extrazine. “I used to plan to
cultivate the corn, too,” he says. “But, more
and more, there isn’t enough weed pressure to justify
it. Having the covers in the rotation has really helped keep
the weeds down.”
Economics and Profitability
Bennett’s system has cut way back on use of commercial
fertilizers — and herbicides, too. He retains more profit
by cutting fertilizer and chemical costs to less than half
of what they were in the 1980s. Using a “typical”
year, 1997, Bennett calculated that 19 percent of his gross
income returned as profit.
Bennett grows his own cover crop seed on about a dozen acres
each year, mostly in small, odd-shaped and erosion-prone fields
that are difficult to crop. Where he grows his rye-vetch seed
mix, he’ll cut the vetch planting rate down to about
20 pounds per acre for easier combining in August.
“Those little fields make a tremendous income when you
think about the amount of fertilizer and herbicide those cover
crop seeds replace,” he says.
In addition to fertilizer and chemical savings, Bennett’s
tillage system cuts fuel costs by about 35 percent compared
to conventional tillage. “I use more fuel than strict
no-till, but a lot less than full tillage,” he says.
Bennett has been able to reduce his hours in the field, making
one pass in the fall (instead of two to disk and chisel plow)
to work in his cover crop. He also consolidates tractor runs
in the spring to one pass.
Bennett credits cover crops and minimum tillage with controlling
erosion on his farm. “You can tell the difference between
our farm and conventional operations just by looking at the
color of the stream after a good rain in the spring,”
But the covers provide more than erosion control, he adds.
“They’ve steadily improved the health of our soil.
We get better water infiltration and quicker drying on the
clays in the spring, and we get better water retention on
Bennett used to have cutworm problems on his sandy soils.
But since he started using covers, they’re practically
nonexistent. Likewise, armyworms were slightly worse the first
year he used covers, but are no problem now. White mold and
sudden death syndrome plague area bean fields. But Bennett
believes soil improvements on his farm have helped his crops
resist these diseases.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
“When I first started growing covers, the community
benefited because it gave folks a lot to talk about at the
coffee shop,” jokes Bennett. “But they’ve
gotten used to it now.”
While few in the area have caught his enthusiasm for cover-cropping,
Bennett has worked with local extension staff to teach neighbors
how to do on-farm research. As a result, many have significantly
reduced their nitrogen rates.
Bennett even credits cover crops with reducing planting-time
stress. “I know they’ll help dry up the fields
that used to be too wet in the spring so I can plant on time.
I know that the soil conditions will be right so that I get
“It’s also a pleasure to go out and walk the fields
knowing that most of the time I’ll see things getting
better instead of finding problems.”
Bennett likes how his new system has helped him regain control
of both his farm management and his costs. These days, he
feels that he makes a difference — and that’s
one of the reasons Bennett continues to farm. “It’s
a challenge every year, and I’m certainly not in it
for the big bucks, because there aren’t any,”
he says. “But nothing else but farming gives me the
satisfaction of being able to use the skills that I’ve
learned over my lifetime to keep making the farm better.”
“Cut your teeth on cutting fertilizer costs,”
suggests Bennett. “Don’t jump in whole hog, though.
Test it out on small plots. Focus your soil testing and monitoring
there and then take what you learn and gradually apply it
to the rest of your farm.”
Once you have some confidence in making changes, try out
cover crops, again starting on small acreages. “But
make sure you have at least a three-year plan,” he advises.
“Don’t give up totally just because your test
didn’t go well the first year. With cover crops, you
won’t start to see some of the big benefits to the soil
and weed control until after you’ve used them a few
No one in Bennett’s family is interested in farming
full time. But he’d like to find someone who will take
over the farm and continue to build on the soil improvements
“I’m going to stay with this kind of farming and
keep promoting it,” says Bennett. “I’m not
ready to retire yet, but I see no need to invest any more
in land or machinery. What I am looking for is new cover crop
systems to give me a new challenge here.”