Dale and Rita Daniels know they are doing right by their soil: They can show you.
As an example, after a mid-July rain event that dumped 2.5 inches of rain, Dale took two Mason jars to the field where a waterway from his property joins with water from a neighbor’s field. He filled one jar with water flowing from his field, the other from the neighbors. “You can see the difference,” he says, pointing to sediment that had settled to the bottom of the jar taken from his neighbor, who farms more conventionally. “That’s soil and nutrients,” he adds, while pointing to his jar that is clear with little sediment.
The Daniels’ commitment to no-till, which started back in the 1980s and their resolve to have something growing on the ground throughout the year, has paid big dividends, he says, albeit sometimes hard to quantify. “Farmers don’t replace the soil, so they don’t see the cost.”
While working to keep the soil and nutrients in the field, Dale has also worked hard to build soil health, reduce compaction, manage woodlots and be an advocate for continual advancements in conservation.
Dale and Rita are being honored with a 2017 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award. The award will be presented Sept. 21 at the Farm Science Review. Tim White and Breann Hohman from the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District nominated the Danielses for the award.
Dale’s grandfather on his mom’s side first settled in Erie County and bought a 125-acre farm.
In the1950s, Dale’s dad Arthur Daniels bought the farm next door to increase the size to 245 acres. In 1976, Dale bought the farm they call home now in Wakeman in Huron County. With all the pieces combined, the farm is now about 300 acres, with 200 acres of tillable ground that is rotated between corn, soybeans and wheat.
Under the silty loam soil is a clay underbase on the Huron farm. The flat areas would hold moisture to the point of being soggy, prompting Dale to tile all their fields.
However, the Erie County farm is rolling with up to 13 feet of fall from one side of the field to the other, he says. "You’ll be up and down and sideways as you go through it,” he explains. “We had to put in a series of waterways and French drains just to be able to hold water, so we didn’t get all the washing.”
In 2011, after doing no-till for almost 30 years, Dale took it a step further and made a committed effort to always have something growing on the ground. “After corn we’re putting in a rye cover crop, and then we’ll no-till our beans into that,” he says. “After beans, we’re putting in wheat, which is followed by soil testing and then putting on lime or gypsum if need be.”
Don, Dale’s brother, is a certified crop adviser, and has made a lot of recommendations in soil and crop management.
“We’ve noticed a big difference in soil health,” says Dale, who also started working with the Soil Health Partnership this past year for more in-depth studies on soil health.
“In our wheat stubble, we planted oats and tillage radishes, which both die off in early winter,” Dale says. “But we also put in crimson clover and dwarf rapeseed, and that will last through the winter, and it keeps something growing and microbial action working throughout the winter. Root growth has been phenomenal.”
The Daniels farm has often hosted various field day events for manure application, no-till and cover crops education. Last year, the farm was host to the Manure and Soil Health Field Day.
For the past 15 years, soil has been sampled in 2.5-acre grids. “We’re going back to the same spot each time to do our testing,” he says. “We also do water testing through Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District. We take water sample straight from our tile lines for evaluation. We’ve found that as long as we having something growing on the topsoil, the nutrients coming out the drain tiles are a lot less. We’ve also found that through the use of gypsum, the dissolved phosphates seem to be a lot less. And by getting our calcium rates up to 65% to 70%, we have less crusting on the soil surface.”
Dale and Don have participated in several of the meetings that are tailoring the Nutrient Tracking tool for application in various watersheds. Dale sits on the advisory board of the Pay-for-Performance grant project that is promoting the Nutrient Tracking Tool.
Chappel Creek, which runs through both the Huron and Erie counties, is prone to overflowing its banks. At one time, they were pasture lots in that area, says Dale, who has returned them to grasses. “When Lake Erie gets high, those areas back up and flood,” he says. “Now, it is getting filtered before returning to the lake. So many people are dependent on the Lake Erie for drinking water and other uses that we cannot afford to not be good stewards.”
A systematic drainage system removes water through tiles that outlet onto grass buffers to allow for effective filtering. “We leave grass and tree-lined fencerows in an effort to slow natural drainage, especially where we have rolling acres,” Dale adds. “The combine yield monitor told us we were losing money on those areas,” he says. “It made sense.”
Windbreaks have been added to slow the strong southwest winds.
The Daniels farm has been host to various events to showcase the effects of cover crops planted at various times of the year over the last four years. The farm has also hosted several local FFA soil judging competitions. “Folks are taking notice,” Dale says. “Some thought we were kind of nuts, but more are wanting to try things differently. I say, find what works on your farm. Look at your scenario, your time and equipment availability.”
Dale, who was formerly employed full time with the Ford Motor Co. and is now a consultant, says no-till really helped him address both time and erosion.
“You don’t need as much equipment, and you don’t spend nearly the money on fuel,” he says “But you have to learn to be patient.”
One more reason to invest and embrace conservation practices is perception of the nonfarming public. “Everyone wants to blame somebody for algal blooms and other problems with Lake Erie,” Dale says. “What’s important to remember is that we all have a stake in it and, therefore, a responsibility. Most of us take that seriously. But there’s a lot more voters that aren’t farmers than are farmers. So, when you see the creeks running like chocolate milk, that’s all soil and nutrients going down there.”
Whether it be perception or reality, “people see it as those farmers are polluting again,” he adds. “We have a responsibility to do the right thing by Lake Erie.”
Family: Dale and Rita Daniels have two grown children. Leanne, who is a director of real estate, resides in CT and has a 13-year-old daughter, Alexa. Their son Mark and his wife, Christie, have two daughters Megan, 10, and Alyssa,7. Mark is a superintendent of a private golf course in Rhode Island.
Farm: About 300 acres of land in Huron and Erie counties used for production of soybeans, wheat, corn, large garden and hardwood timbers. The farm has been in long term no-till and has installed many conservation practices over the years.
Nomination: Bree Homan and Tim White with the Erie County Soil and Water Conservation District
Community Outreach: The farm has hosted Conservation Field Days. Dale and Rita are active in Caring Community (local food bank). Rita is a 25-year 4-H adviser and school volunteer.
Leadership: Rita is active in church, local school, 4-H and Caring Community, and is past membership chairman for Farm Bureau. Dale has served as a local school board member for 16 years. He likes to share lessons learned with fellow farmers and help neighboring soil and water districts with Conservation Information Days.