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A conversation with Steve Jacob and Ryan Speer

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, at 6:36 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, at 7:25 a.m.

To non-farmers, the way a farm field is tilled may seem like a technicality. To farmers, it’s a huge deal.

Steve Jacob and Ryan Speer, co-owners of Jacob Farm, have for years championed no-till farming, which means that farm fields are not plowed into those neat rows of dirt before the seeds are planted.

Instead, plant on top of the old corn or wheat stalks, then add ground cover over the winter to cut down on erosion and enrich the soil.

Speer, who bought into the farm after working there for years, estimates that fewer than 20 percent of farmers in the area use the technique.

Jacob Farm, which is 3,500 acres just south of Bentley, is sustaining its fourth generation of the Jacob family. It was recently named farm of the year by the Downtown Wichita Kiwanis Club.

Do you need a college degree to be a farmer anymore?

Speer: I think it’s very beneficial. You are putting yourself at a big disadvantage without it. A farm is a business. It’s not just a farm anymore. It’s a full-blown business. It needs to be run like a business. You deal with a massive amount of money and you need to know where you’re at all the time.

So it’s mainly a business?

Speer: It’s also a way of life. I tell most people, “OK I want you to put out a million dollars worth of expense, and I want you to work 80 hours a week, but I can’t guarantee what you’ll make at the end of the year.” Who’s going to sign up for it? So there is a love for it. Because you have to have the love to do this. Otherwise, we’d be nuts. I’m not going to say you don’t make money, but there are years in which you don’t make any or very little.

How’s it look for next year?

Speer: Still working on the nitty-gritty, looking at fertilizer prices and other inputs, but I assume our farm income will be down next year because crop prices are down.

With the price of corn plunging, I’ll bet you probably sold all of your corn and grain sorghum already?

Speer: Not as much as I would have liked, looking back. The market is such a tricky deal. The last two years, if you sold early you got burned because the price went up. So instead of doing what you should, you think, “I got burned last year, so…”

You’ve become an apostle for no-till farming. What is that?

Speer: We do all no-till, cover crops, high residue management. The reason we do that is to increase our water efficiency, water holding capacity. We use less chemicals because we have better weed control.

How did you get into no-till?

Jacob: I made the switch after I went to a no-till conference. I said this looks like something I’d like to try. … What was scary is you grow up with this idea that the soil has to be tilled. It has to be a certain texture and looseness to plant into. To just go out and plant in ground that’s not being touched, that’s scary – you depend on this for your income. For somebody switching, that’s the scary part. You know tilling works. And in your mind, you don’t know if no-till really works.

Is it easy to learn?

Jacob: There is a learning curve. It’s a different way of farming. It’s like starting all over. A lot of farmers say it’s just trash farming, “You’re just slopping it in.” Actually it’s a higher level of management to make this work. Like henbit (a weed), you have to take care of that in the fall to make sure it doesn’t come up, because if it comes up in the spring, it’s very hard to kill and it sucks up moisture like crazy.

Will planters work on no-till?

Jacob: They have made improvements on these planters where they will handle a tougher environment than they used to.

Do you lose yield with no-till?

Jacob: They talk about yield drag in the first couple of years. I personally didn’t see it. Your soil does have to adjust from being tilled to not being tilled. There is a few years where you fight compaction and it can be a little difficult. … After 10 years, the soil is in better condition that when we were tilling.

And why do you use cover crops?

Speer: The cover crop is the stuff we’ll plant to go through the winter – rye, barley, oats, radishes. It provides cover, and the living root mass keeps the microbiology active all winter. That makes the soil healthier, more active, keeps the nitrogen cycle going throughout the winter, where otherwise it shuts down. That cover also provides weed control. The spring can be really wet sometimes, and that cover crop is actually using moisture when it’s too wet.

Why don’t more farmers use it?

Speer: If somebody had taught you how to do whatever for 20 years, and then somebody says, “OK, this is a different way of doing it,” you’d probably say, “I’ve been doing this forever, and it works; why change?” But there are so many beneficial aspects to it, why would you not?

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