Jim Isley has been farming for more than 40 years and is constantly making updates to improve his family’s 150-year-old farm. Some key practices on his farm include soil testing, on-farm trials and variable rate applications. Isley believes sustainability can be profitable – hear his story to learn how nutrient management and conservation efforts can be combined to raise the best corn and soybean crop possible.
Name: Jim Isley
Name of farm: Sunrise Farms
Farm location: Palmyra, MI
Key crops on your farm: Corn and soybeans
A bit about your farm’s history: The farm has been in the family for over 150 years. I’m a fifth generation farmer.
Years in business: I have been farming for over 40 years.
What soil characteristics describe the majority of management zones on your farm?
Most of our 1,050 acre farm has a sandy loam soil with very coarse or gravelly subsoils. We are in the Lake Erie lake basin, so you get 6 to 8 feet below ground and you get into clay.
In some ways, it is easy to grow a good crop, but they tend to be droughty. If you get a minor drought in summer, your crops can really be hurt. Conservation tillage has helped us.
What is the best part of being a farmer, in your experience?
The best part of being a farmer is coming to know long-term neighbors. We have neighbors that have been farming as long we have or my family has over the past 150 years. I used to be able to boast that I can name every house around us. It wasn’t a lot, maybe around 20 or better. Now that has changed.
I have two sons and a daughter. One of my sons is involved with the farm. I hope for the best for them as they live in the community.
What are your primary sources of information for making decisions related to fertilizer use and nutrient management on your farm?
I would start with the recommendations from our local supplier. We take a look at those. We look at the Tri-State Fertilizer Recommendations for the nutrient levels for our crops. We also look at the university studies and seed and fertilizer sales personnel for information.
We do a lot of trials on our own farm. For example in 2016, we had 26 different trait packages. We do a lot of side-by-side comparisons on our own. Not only do we do variety comparisons, but we also conduct fertilizer rates and different fertilizer analysis trials. It almost becomes confusing. We run out of space on our farm for the trials.
Dr. Robert Mullen’s in-depth analysis of the 2015 soil test levels in North America issued by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) reveals a decline in nutrient balance trends as more Michigan soils test below the critical level for K and P. Given that information, what are you observing in your region of the state that conflicts with or supports that information?
I can’t speak for soils on other farms, but on our own farm, we find that as yields increase, more nutrients are used by the crop and taken off the farm.
We soil test half of our acreage every other year. We try to keep the nutrients in the respectable range.
We have a battle with pH. We like to have our soils in the 6.0-6.5 range. For P and K, we apply whatever the nutrients call for.
One of the goals for our farm is we want to apply all of our nutrients subsoil and variable rate, and we will achieve that this year. We also do strip till.
My advice for any farmer is to soil test. It’s not that expensive. Considering the cost of nutrients, it is a bargain. Let’s find out what we have. Grow the best crop we can. The best crop does not mean applying more nutrients than necessary.
On our farm, we had some phosphorus deficiencies years back. As I drive by my neighbor’s field, I can see some young corn that looks purple. I recognize what that is, but I’m not sure my neighbors recognize what that is. I really don’t want to go to my neighbor and say, “you should do this.” Sometime it’s easier with relatives or people you go to church with, but you don’t want to come across as knowing everything. I am sure they also see things in my crops that I’m not aware of.
What is the most important lesson you have learned as a farmer?
In the past ten years, the most important lesson I have learned is that sustainability and profitability can go hand and hand. As we face the challenge of moving forward with the increased conservation effort not only in our watershed, but state and nationwide as producers, we need to be conservation minded and apply nutrients where necessary, but at the proper levels. The two go hand in hand. Sustainability can be profitable.
What short piece of advice would you give to a new farmer?
Keep an open mind to all the data we can collect, not only from your own farm, but also data from university studies and the data from other sources such as your fertilizer dealer or seed salesman.
Do research on your own farm. We have had a yield monitor on our combine for a number of years. It was not until eight years ago; we pulled data out of that combine and viewed it as a map. It was very, very surprising. If you look at a field that yielded an average of 175 bushels; you find out, there is a lot of variability in a field. If those different variations in soil or in this case, yields were in separate fields, we would treat them differently. But they are not in separate fields; they are in the same field. Look at that.
Use the knowledge and data we have available to us. Farm those fields or that field as they are different fields. We have found variable rate to be a very great thing. My father and grandfather practiced that on larger scale. Today’s technology allows us to farm that area on a sub-acre.