Back To The Future

While growing his herd size, this Indiana producer also enriches his soil via cover crops and tried-and-true grazing practices.

By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Tharran E. Gaines

If they’d ever had a chance to meet, Steve Hicks and his great-great-great-grandfather, George Washington Hicks, would have had a lot to talk about. In 1822, the elder Hicks homesteaded what is now part of the family’s operation, and from that beginning both men—Steve now and George before him—recognized the value of the soil and acknowledged the synergistic relationship between livestock and land.

As the owners of Hicks Cattle Company, LLC, near Covington, Indiana, Steve Hicks and his wife, Kristen, tie crops and livestock together into a complementary program seldom seen these days—particularly in the area around their farm. In addition to about 1,600 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans, the couple own about 300 registered Simmental and Angus cow/calf pairs, and manage another 200 head of cows. Kristen, who makes the majority of the herd health decisions, also operates her own veterinarian practice from the farm.

As part of their livestock program, the Hicks family sells Angus, Simmental and Simm-Angus bulls and bred heifers, as well as semen and embryos from their top-production bulls and cows. The Hickses certainly produce some top-quality animals, which has prompted them to schedule their first annual livestock production sale on the farm this December. Just this past January, they took Grand Champion for a pen of three females at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. They also own two of the nation’s top bulls, in partnership with two other cattle ranchers.

At the same time, Steve has a close working relationship with his dad—also Steve, or “Big Steve”—and his uncle, David, who manage another 3,200 acres of crops as Hicks Farms, Inc. As a result, Steve and his extended family often share labor and equipment—the latter particularly important in the Hickses’ work of planting cover crops for both grazing and soil enhancement. “In most parts of the Corn Belt, cattle were all but gone by 1970, and the fences followed suit by the 1980s,” Steve says. “We’re putting them back in. We’ve even taken a few fields out of row crops and put them back into pasture, which is intensely grazed as part of a rotational grazing program.”

Steve says his objective goes beyond simply keeping livestock production costs down by grazing crop residue and cover crops. Rather than building a bigger operation, he hopes to build up the soil, improve profits through diversification and leave the farm in better shape than he found it.

“At one time, we had the richest, blackest soil in the Midwest,” he explains. “And we still have really rich soil, but we’re losing inches of topsoil. So our goal is to mimic, as much as possible, the way the soil was made.”

To that point, Steve looks to species diversity as an indicator of soil health. “If you were to drop a hula hoop on a piece of native prairie, you’d find about three dozen different plant species besides the native grass,” he continues. “You also had buffalo and other wildlife grazing the prairie, and returning fertilizer to the soil. So, in effect, we’re trying to replicate that process.”

Cocktail of Cover Crops

In his effort to bring back that nutrient-rich soil his great-great-great-grandfather farmed, Steve’s fields are seldom, if ever, tilled … or left bare. Following harvest, he typically plants rye behind corn and soybeans, and, since there are more growing days after wheat harvest—and because those fields are heavily grazed during the summer and fall—he plants a full “cocktail” of cover crops behind that wheat. He bales the straw from the wheat harvest for sale to local dairies and for use in winter rations on his own operation. Moreover, not all wheat is harvested as grain. Some of it is cut early, baled and wrapped in plastic as wheat silage.

“Our latest cover crop behind wheat was a 15-species blend that had everything from African cabbage and okra to barley and cow peas,” Steve says. “The idea is to partially replicate nature with multiple species and grazing. Most years, there’s enough forage from the cover crop to easily handle one cow/calf pair per acre.”

Reduction of Inputs

While he plants corn and soybeans in 30-inch rows, wheat and all cover crops are seeded with a 30-foot, high-speed air drill equipped with two commodity chambers. Divided in a 60-40 split, those chambers can be filled with seed only, or a combination of seed and fertilizer.

“It does an awesome job of managing the residue,” Steve says of the Sunflower® 9830NT air drill he uses, noting that his dad and uncle share many of the same farming practices. “We have a pretty intensive wheat management program that includes fungicide and several shots of fertilizer. As a result, we averaged 105 bushels per acre on all our wheat in 2016. In the meantime, the air drill allows us to plant a wide range of seed sizes, especially when we’re planting the ‘cocktail’ blends.”

The Hickses use an equally specialized machine for planting corn and soybeans into cover crops of standing rye. While one of the two planters owned by his dad and uncle features residue managers for planting directly into the rye, the newer of the two is equipped with hydraulic down force and a pair of electrohydraulic rollers/row cleaners that pull rye away from a row’s center, while rolling the cover crop into a mat between the rows.

The planters—both of which are White Planters™—are also set up with precision seed meters, row clutches for individual row shutoff and dual tanks. The latter applies 3-18-18 fertilizer in the furrow and 28% nitrogen on top of the soil, 2 inches behind the closing wheels.

Although Steve can’t say he’s seen a yield increase from using cover crops, he figures he has reduced his input costs by at least one-third or more, and also reduced soil erosion. While manure helps lower fertilizer costs, the cover crops have reduced the need for herbicides.

This is particularly true with herbicide-resistant waterhemp, which has become quite prevalent in the area. Though weed scientists attribute some weed suppression by cereal rye to the release of allelopathic chemicals, an Iowa State University study showed that the physical barrier provided by rye residue on the soil surface also suppressed weed growth and germination. In the meantime, a Georgia study estimated that rye captured from 69% to 100% of the residual nitrogen left after a corn crop.

“We are probably the only farm within a 50-mile radius building fences to also graze cornstalks,” Steve adds. “We try to get the cows out of our pastures as much as possible. If they’re not grazing cover crops, they’re out on crop residue.

“So, while others are double-cropping soybeans behind wheat, we’re harvesting our double-crop as beef and manure.”