Dan Gillespie of Battle Creek was recently honored with the Master Conservationist Award. The Master Conservationist Awards recognize people and organizations who excel in managing and conserving Nebraska’s water and soil. The awards are sponsored by the Omaha World-Herald and the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The award was recently presented to Dan at the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD) Annual Conference at the Younes Conference Center in Kearney. The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (LENRD) assisted in nominating Dan for this award in the Agriculture category.
Dan began experimenting with no-till corn into soybean stubble in 1986 on his farm south of Meadow Grove. Since 1991, he has practiced Continuous No-Till Farming on all his 412 corn-soybean acres. Dan was the first one to start no-tilling in the area.
After continuous no-till for 13 years, Dan began planting cover crops in the fall of 2005 in response to intense rainfall events. He has planted cereal rye cover crops on all soybean stubble acres since 2006 while also experimenting with legumes and brassicas in seed mixtures. After several years of utilizing aerial application, he has settled on drilling all cover crops after harvest.
In the spring of 2007, the Battle Creek watershed endured a seven-inch rainfall. Dan was able to plant in his cover cropped field only three days later while having no need to repair any waterways or flow areas. No sediment left the 11-16% slopes on his farm with valuable nutrients and he maximized his rainfall infiltration and storage in the soil profile. Dan said, “I haven’t repaired a concentrated flow area in the fields since I implemented continuous cover cropping. I believe the top benefit or return on my conservation investments is the elimination of soil erosion. The regeneration of my cropland soils has allowed me to spend less on fertilizer, herbicide and irrigation inputs.”
In the spring of 2012, Dan drilled soybeans into the green, living cereal rye he had planted the previous fall and let both soybeans and rye cover crop grow until cover crop termination in May. The practice worked well, yields were excellent, and he has continued to utilize this practice. He is one of the leaders in the state regarding “planting green.”
In the fall of 2012, Dan drilled the flow areas (high probability of soil erosion) in his corn fields with a bushel of rye per acre. The concept was to augment the residue cover from the corn crop in the stable flow areas with a living root system. The fields were drilled to soybeans in spring 2013 and the cover crop in the flow areas was left to grow until the first herbicide application. Dan said, “The practice worked very well and is now used for treating ephemeral gully problems by many farmers.”
Dan’s use of soil moisture monitoring with telemetry gives him real time available water capacity for the crop, allowing him to take advantage of the increased infiltration and water storage capabilities that healthy soils provide. Dan has averaged 5.14” of irrigation water on corn and 4.94” on soybeans annually since installation of flow meters and adoption of electronic soil moisture monitoring. The reduction in applied irrigation has also reduced issues with fungal diseases in Dan’s cornfields. He has not applied a fungicide to his corn since the implementation of soil moisture monitoring. Dan added, “I have cut back on N application as the soil organic matter improves and increased soil biological activity continues to mineralize nitrogen at greater rates.”
The 2% soil organic matter improvement in Dan’s fields allows him to infiltrate intense rainfall events and store that moisture in the soil profile. That 2% additional soil organic matter can store an additional 1.5 inches of rainfall in the soil profile, releasing it to the crop as needed and this happens repeatedly through the year. Dan added, “Night crawler populations are a good soil health indicator and have gained rapidly since the implementation of cover crops. The macropores they create when burrowing add significantly to the infiltration rate for rainfall and irrigation water in the field.”
Dan had 30 acres of cropland in CRP from 1981 through 2001 and enrolled 20 acres into Pollinator CRP in 2015-2016 to enhance habitat for pollinators. The 30 acres of CRP, returned to crop production, routinely out yields the cropland next to it due to the soil organic matter improvements from CRP years.
When you visit with Dan about his farming practices, he says, “I want to leave the land in better shape than it was in when I started farming it.”
Julie Wragge, LENRD Information & Education Specialist, said, “His credibility comes from experience. Dan wouldn’t ask another farmer to do something that he hasn’t tried and proven himself. Speaking to agri-business groups, soil health workshops, No-till Conferences and Expos, college classes, high schools and grade schools, Dan has spoken to or presented to over 18,000 people since 2012.” Wragge added, “Dan is very deserving of this high honor. He continues to ‘sell’ conservation to everyone he encounters.”