Chasing profit — Nebraska farmer uses conservation practices to improve soil and financial returns

By Chrystal Houston, Upper Big Blue NRD

If your idea of a successful Nebraska farmer is one who has the biggest equipment, and whose fields are regularly turned black soil with nothing but corn in perfect rows all the way to the horizon, then Todd Dzingle’s operation might disappoint you.

Dzingle’s corn and soybean fields in Hall, Adams, Clay and Sherman Counties includes no-till on all of his acres and cover crops on the majority of them. “I’m after soil health and profit per acre along the way,” he said. The challenge he has set for himself is to use the least amount of inputs while raising quality yields, making the return on investment for each bushel as high as possible.

“I’m happy with the yields, and each year I’m seeing better yields as I’m increasing my soil health. I want my investment per acre to be as slim as possible without sacrificing yield,” he said. Like any new practice this takes a little time, patience, and a positive attitude.

Dzingle applies nitrogen sparingly, opting instead to do all he can to boost the health of his soil, with the understanding a well-functioning soil system is the key to success. “I want to take care of the land. I’m not farming year-to-year. I’m looking five years-plus down the road,” he said. This long-range view was part of the reason he signed up for the Nebraska Soil Carbon Project in 2021. This program provides funding incentives for producers in the Central Platte and Upper Big Blue Natural Resources Districts to implement no-till, cover crops, and rotational cropping systems as a means to restore soil health and sequester carbon.

Dzingle grew up farming with his grandpa and dad and later worked with local farmer Kurt Unger on his farm. He started his career as a crop consultant with Servi-Tech, helping other farmers make decisions about their most important resource, their soil. By 2009, he was ready to see for himself if there was any power in what he had been preaching. He rented 90 acres of ground from his dad and started farming his own way, including transitioning to conservation tillage. Over the years, he added more acres to his operation and more practices to those acres.

For some, the multigenerational aspect of farming can be a barrier to getting started with conservation practices, as there is pressure from the previous generations to farm ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ Dzingle said he was fortunate that he didn’t have that problem, as his dad was supportive of trying out new strategies along with Unger.

Informed and equipped by soil health experts like Dean Krull, Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and advice from Kurt and Lisa Unger, Dzingle started experimenting with cover crops in 2016. He quickly discovered that using conservation practices requires courage and constant learning. “If you’re not messing up, you’re not trying hard enough,” he said. “You have to manage cover crops. I’ve had some bumps and bruises, but nothing that’s going to make me stop trying.”

Early on in his experimentation, he added a spring mix cover crop on a gravity irrigated area on a pivot corner, planting green. “Everything looked great, and then it just turned super dry and windy for about three weeks,” he recalled. “The oats pulled some moisture in and the ground started to crack and the corn started to suffer.”

The corn ended up being shorter on the corners, however, “It still ended up yielding right with the rest,” he said. The lesson he learned? “I should have had the cover crop sprayed sooner.” And yet, he did see excellent weed suppression in the cover cropped area and the next time he hilled the ground he was amazed at how loose the soil was. “There was a positive out of the mistake. That was a definite lightbulb moment for me. I could see how the tough clay had structure and really softened the ground from the cover that was planted.”

Another lightbulb moment for Dzingle was during the intense flooding across much of Nebraska in the spring of 2019. When the water receded from his farm in Sherman County, he noticed where he had planted rye the previous fall, he didn’t have soil loss, though the sandy soil was prone to erosion on the slopes. “I was really impressed that I just didn’t have the washing or the issues where I had the rye. That really sold me,” he said.

By the 2020 growing season, Dzingle was all in on cover crops. He purchased a 30-foot no-till drill and significantly increased the number of acres he had in cover crops. By 2021, he had enrolled in the Nebraska Soil Carbon Project, which he said has helped with seed costs.

Doing more with less is the strategy that excites Dzingle when it comes to farming. The longer he farms this way and the more comfortable he becomes with experimentation, the more willing he is to push the envelope. For example, he likes to wait until the last possible moment to terminate cover crops to get the maximum benefit of those plants building biomass and keeping the soil active. However, for a farmer who is just getting started with cover crops, he recommends early termination, especially if they are unsure about the timing. “Just pick a date and spray,” he said, as you’re still going to be better off having the cover crops on the ground for even a short amount of time than not having them at all.

How does he know if his investment in soil health is paying off? Other than the obvious benefits he has seen year after year including improved soil structure and infiltration rates, the proof is in the lab results. He samples annually and has seen a steady increase in soil organic matter. He also bases his fertilizer strategy on what the test results tell him he already has available in the soil. After all, fertilizer is expensive, and since his goal is to get the most return with the least investment, it makes sense to add only as much nitrogen as is needed.

These continuous improvements motivate Dzingle to do more for the soil. In the upcoming year, he plans to move from a single species cover crop to a multi-species mix. Eventually, he plans to integrate livestock into the operation.

While he jumped into conservation farming practices with both feet, he suggests that others set their own pace, even if that just means a small amount of acres in the first year.

“Start with what you are comfortable with and have an open mind,” he said. “Commit to a course of action for three to five years before you decide if it is working or not.” He also recommends getting in touch with local resources and programs through agencies that offer support and funding, such as NRCS and NRDs. “They have been good to work with. No one has been pushy. They are encouraging and supportive. They like to see you making the changes.”

Dzingle recognizes the importance of building a network of trusted resources in the regenerative ag space. “Green Cover Seed has also been a great resource for me. They are cover crop seed experts with a wealth of great information.”

While no-till with cover crops and livestock is the ideal, Dzingle says that one tillage pass is far better than three, and cover crops on a few acres is much better than none. He encourages others to look more closely at what they are doing to see where there could be improvement–and that goes for landowners as much as operators. “Landowners renting out their ground need to work with the producer. You shouldn’t put it all on the farmer to make these changes,” he said, because if it’s your soil, you should be investing in it. Rented land can create a disconnect from the soil where neither party truly feels like they are a steward.

The biggest hurdle for some farmers in implementing conservation practices is the fear of what the landlord or others will say, especially if they make a mistake, Dzingle said. He tells other farmers to “have blinders on to begin with, be confident and okay with seeing your fields look different from conventional practices, the end product will still turn out.”

Most are hesitant to step outside the boundaries of conventional agriculture, he said. But as for him, “It feels good to work with nature and getting the soil back to a healthy state while improving yields with less inputs.”

For more information about the Nebraska Soil Carbon Project, visit https://www.upperbigblue.org/SoilCarbonProject or contact either the Central Platte or Upper Big Blue NRD.

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