If any of his neighbors noticed Chuck Hicks hauling home a 12-row corn planter several years ago, they must have wondered what he thought he was doing. A 12-row planter isn't too practical on Washington County's hilly, irregular fields with their narrow access lanes. But instead of using the planter for corn, Chuck took a cutting torch to it and used the parts to build an 11-row, no-till soybean planter with 15-inch row widths. Rebuilding the planter gave him the machine he needed without breaking the bank, he explains. "I built it for about a third what I could have bought it for."
Chuck's home-built planter is an example of the hands-on approach he takes to conservation on his farm near Vincent. He's being honored for his efforts with a 2018 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award.
Chuck and his wife, Diane, started their farm by buying four acres of wooded land in 1982. They built a house on the narrow parcel and used timber harvested from the woods to build barns. They used the land as a home base and rented additional acres to farm. Their four acres had been partitioned off of a larger farm, and they were gradually able to buy several adjoining parcels, Diane explains. "We tried to piece that farm back together."
Today, Chuck farms 365 acres, raising soybeans, corn, wheat and hay. He also feeds out about 60 feeder cattle and 20 hogs every year. Chuck left his off-farm job to farm full-time in 2001. Before that, Diane recalls, "He was a full-time farmer with a full-time job." Diane returned to school after their three children reached school age and now works off the farm as a 7th grade teacher.
On his rolling crop ground, erosion and surface runoff are concerns, particularly during heavy rains. Chuck has installed inlet and outlet structures to manage water flow. He has also put in sod waterways underlaid with subsurface tile to handle runoff. Diversion ditches direct water away from travel lanes to prevent them from eroding.
Chuck has installed systematic drainage on some of his crop ground and also installs spot drainage to address trouble spots. In fact, he installed the subsurface drainage on one of his fields several years ago before he bought the land. Good drainage helps reduce the amount of water running off the surface and causing erosion, he points out.
Lack of water is a concern on the farm as well. In 1999, they ran short of well water because of the drought. To avoid that problem in the future, Chuck built a pond and ran water lines to his livestock facilities and pasture areas. Now, all the livestock drinking water comes from the pond, leaving the well for household use.
To improve the quality of the pond water and suppress growth of water meal and algae, Chuck installed an aeration system earlier this year. It's powered by a windmill he put up nearby.
Another recent farm improvement is a fenced runway from his cattle barn, down a steep hill, though the woods and then back up another hill to a pasture. The run way lets him move cattle from pasture to pasture while keeping them out of the woods and stream bed.
Chuck began using no-till about 14 years ago. At first, before he built his soybean planter, he planted his no-till soybeans using the same planter he used for corn. To get 15-inch rows, he would double back through the field a second time, planting between the rows.
About six years ago he added a cereal rye cover crop to his rotation, and he's experimented with various planting and stand management methods. Chuck has a Great Plains grain drill that he uses some years, but he has also broadcast seeded the rye. Generally, his rotation includes corn, then two years of soybeans followed by a cereal rye cover crop or wheat. In the spring, he usually applies a burndown herbicide on the rye cover when it reaches 12 to 14 inches. That allows him to put fertilizer on the field without the rye interfering with the broadcast spread pattern. If he does not need to apply fertilizer, he sometimes allows the rye to grow taller before applying the burndown. This year he also cut some and baled it for straw.
Besides the benefits to soil quality, the rye cover crop helps suppress troublesome weeds such as marestail, Chuck says. This year some escaped weeds provided evidence of the effectiveness of the cover crop. The only place marestail appeared in one of his soybean fields is in a strip that was accidentally skipped when the cover crop was planted.
Rotating herbicides also helps in maintaining control of herbicide-resistant weeds. It's important to adjust herbicide programs and production practices to keep up with weed pressure, Chuck adds.
"Mother Nature always works around what you think you have a handle on," he warns.
Chuck usually raises some wheat, which gives him somewhere to haul manure in the summer. This year, though, he didn't raise any, so he needed some temporary storage for his pen pack cattle manure. Using round bales, he set up a containment area near the edge of a field so the nutrients won't run off before he's able to get the manure applied this fall.
Using manure from his beef cattle and hogs lets Chuck cut down on purchased fertilizer. He uses regular soil tests to figure nutrient needs and manure analysis to determine the nutrient content of the manure. "Then I just cut my fertilizer back accordingly," he explains.
Sometimes, Chuck bales corn stalks to use as bedding, but he doesn't want to shift residue from one field to another. He keeps track of the source of the bedding so he can return it when he hauls manure, he says. "I get the residue back on the field it came from."
Besides planting cover crops on his own farm, Chuck has encouraged other farmers to use them. As a supervisor for the Washington Soil and Water Conservation District, he helped the SWCD get a Gandy Air Seeder for area farmers to use for cover crop planting. Chuck has also helped other area farmers with their conservation practices by sharing his experience and advice, says Sandy Lahmers, district administrator for the Washington SWCD. "He's the one other farmers call to ask questions."
The years of no-till and cover crops have noticeably improved the soil on Chuck's farm. He started out with organic matter at around 1.4%. Now, some of his land is testing a 3.7%, he says. "I just want to keep the ground in good shape for whoever has it next."
More on Chuck Hicks
• The family. Chuck and Diane Hicks are the parents of three grown children: son Matthew Hicks and his wife, Meghan, live in Virginia and are the parents of three-year-old Harper and five-month-old Haydyn; daughter Emily and her husband, Mike Seaman, live nearby and are the parents of Austin, 6; daughter Jessica and her husband, Jared Anderson, also live nearby.
• The farm. Chuck farms 365 acres in Washington County with about 200 acres in soybeans, 105 acres in corn, 13 acres in hay and 6 acres of pasture. The remainder of the land is woodland. He feeds out about 60 beef cattle each year as well as a few hogs.
• Nomination. Chuck was nominated for the 2018 Ohio Conservation Farm Family Award by Sandy Lahmers, Washington Soil and Water Conservation District administrator.
• Conservation outreach. The results of cover crop demonstration plots grown on the Hicks' farm were presented during area training meetings for producers. The farm has also hosted students from conservation camp and hosted a legislative tour for the Washington SWCD. Chuck was instrumental in the purchase and promotion of the Washington SWCD cover crop seeder and frequently advises other area farmers on conservation practices and equipment. He also led a group of producers from the area in attending the state no-till field day.
• Community leadership. Chuck is a parish council member for St. Bernard's Catholic Church, he's been a Washington SWCD supervisor for 10 years and he's a United Producers Inc. delegate board member. He has also volunteered at the Washington County Farm Bureau fair booth and has provided equipment and grain for the Washington County Safety Day. Both Chuck and Diane are active in the Washington County Farm Bureau, and Diane currently serves as secretary.