Mike Starkey’s farm in Hendricks County, Indiana, is proof that soil-building practices can significantly boost carbon-sequestering soil organic matter. Starkey no-till farms 2,500 acres with his nephew Jeff Starkey; his son, Nick; and Jeff’s son, Zach. Starkey and his family have practiced no-till for more than 25 years and have grown cover crops for more than a decade. “The organic matter in our soil has climbed by 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent over 15 years,” says Mike Starkey. “Some of our land now tests five percent organic matter.”
Soil organic matter is about 60 percent carbon, so increasing organic matter by three percent in the top foot of soil would add about 36 tons of carbon per acre to the soil.
The Starkeys grow corn, soybeans and winter wheat. Cover crops provide greater plant diversity and keep living roots in the soil nearly year-round. “After harvesting winter wheat in early July, we plant a nine-species cover crop mix,” Mike says. “After soybean harvest, we plant a five-way mix; and in corn, we fly on a three-way mix, seeding into standing corn around Labor Day.”
The Starkeys’ production system of using no-till and cover crops to produce cash crops has resulted in huge cost savings, says Mike. “With commodity prices as low as they are, the cost savings help us to survive. Because our no-till system requires less equipment than does a system of conventional tillage, we see a dramatic reduction in machinery costs and labor. And the cover crops reduce costs for herbicide and fertilizer. The soil biology provides the fertility the cash crops need. In conventional-till systems the non-living soil requires fertilizers in order for plants to grow. In today’s economic environment of farming, I don’t see how that can continue.”
The fertilizers the Starkeys do apply tend to stay in place along with the soil, anchored by crop residue on the surface and living roots below ground. This is borne out by the results of a multi-agency water-monitoring project involving Starkey Farms along with others situated along a tributary feeding Eagle Creek Reservoir, a primary source of drinking water for Indianapolis.
The runoff coming from the Starkeys’ fields results from those periodic, intense rain events that dump two to four inches of rain in a single downpour. Despite porous soils and moisture-trapping surface residue, these downpours can result in some runoff. “The water monitoring shows that the water that comes off our fields and through our tiles is lower in nitrates and phosphorus than what is already in the stream,” says Mike. “Our water is clear, while the water in the stream is muddy.”
As he fine-tunes the soil-building practices on his farm, Mike works closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He also serves as supervisor of the Hendricks County Soil and Water Conservation District. For the soil and water conservation work on his own farm, Mike Starkey was named a Soil Health Champion by the National Association of Conservation Districts.
Visit the Starkey Farms website to learn more about their farm and their methods.
Raylene Nickel is an author, freelance journalist and farmer who raises cattle near Kief, North Dakota.
Cover photo: Starkey family on their farm.