For soils, patience is a virtue
Ray Styer knows how to build on something patiently to make it pay off. That is the way he treats his soil, which he continually improves by using a careful cover-crop selection over decades.
And, after all, the process of patiently building up a farm is something he started learning 54 years ago in 1958, when he moved to North Carolina, bought a small farm near Reidsville and went into business.
Styer grew up outside of Philadelphia, which he says is probably the original home of “urban sprawl.” He was raised on a little farm, but by the time he grew up he knew there was no place in that over-developed area left to farm.
“That is when I was drafted into the Army,” Styer says, “and I was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. I liked North Carolina. Then I met a student nurse from Rockingham County, and I liked it even better!”
One day at his girlfriend’s home, her father was reading the paper and noticed a farm for sale in the classified ads. They rode out to see it. Styer had $600 in his checking account. He put $500 down on the farm.
“I woke up in a cold sweat the next morning, but a month later, Sara and I got married and settled here with the idea of turning it into a dairy farm,” he says. Sara had grown up on a small dairy farm herself. “We started with 11 cows,” Styer adds.
• Cover crops are prescription vitamins for the soil.
• Choice of the perfect cover-crop mixture is Styer’s art.
• Huge radishes provide aeration for the soil.
The dairy gradually built up to 20 cows, then 30 cows. In the 1970s, it topped out at around 50 milking cows.
Today, at 79, Styer has backed off the dairy, though he and Sara still keep 58 head of stocker steers. He still continues to improve the farm patiently, particularly with his interest and fondness for cover crops.
Styer produces a good amount of corn silage to feed the stocker steers. He also produces some hay, but he likes silage better. “Every time I mow hay, it seems like it rains on it,” he says with a chuckle.
He’s won a number of awards for his good conservation practices. Styer is one of these people who view good conservation as a kind of art. And good conservation, he says, starts with a good cover in the winter. He uses a little manure for fertilization on his fields, but maintains he now grows his corn every year without commercial fertilizer.
His cover crop has evolved over the years into a “cocktail” mixture of various seeds, each providing a soil-enhancing component of its own. Legumes, for example, fix nitrogen and make it available to the crop root zone. Also, various legumes decompose at different times, making their source of N available over an extensive part of the crop season.
“It is not like putting one shot of commercial fertilizer out there,” he says. “The release of the nutrients is spread out over the season.”
His cocktail mixture for cover crops isn’t set in stone. For the last 15 years or so, his recipe has been an ever-developing theme. And he continues to develop each motif. First of all, the cover growing on the soil surface protects the soil from the rain and snow and helps stop erosion.
For his N-providing legumes, he currently uses hairy vetch and crimson clover. He’s not totally satisfied with vetch, however, he says, because it doesn’t grow fast enough to suit his taste and it doesn’t cover the soil as quickly as he likes. At times he’ll use rye because it is good for protecting the soil against rain and erosion. Rye also grows up to 6 feet tall and creates a tremendous amount of biomass.
Good organic matter helps make the soil friable and able to absorb water better. Fishing worms love to live in it, and their trails break the soil up even better. Mulch from mown grasses, such as rye, keeps rain from splattering the topsoil. Styer says his soil now holds water better during summer droughts due to his use of cover crops.
Volunteering henbit and chickweed and seeded Austrian winter peas are also used as cover to protect the soil. He adds in a variety of giant radishes that serve an interesting purpose. They grow a huge taproot that breaks up the soil. Corn roots can easily grow deep in the summer by following the tunnel the radishes leave after they decompose.
“When you get into the soil-health end of it, you really begin to think of soil as a living organism, instead of dirt,” Styer says. “Then you want to see what you can put back into it. One component helps another out … and they all work together. The result is better than having a monoculture.”
This article published in the March, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.