Soil is a precious commodity for third-generation farmer Chris Mulkey.
Mulkey’s grandfather moved to southern Indiana when his son (Mulkey’s father) was 12. Today, Mulkey and his own son Kit run the farm, and he is invested in leaving a legacy for generations to come. “I inherited my ground from my dad, and I want it to be in better shape for my son and his son,” Mulkey says.
Their land crosses two counties that have different soil characteristics. The soil drives Mulkey’s decisions on what crops to plant and what equipment and conservation practices to invest in. But one thing is for certain, Mulkey says: “If we don’t save the top soil, we don’t have a farm.”
Saving the soil
Mulkey has taken preventive steps to save his soil from washing away. For example, he’s planted more than 300 acres of alfalfa on sandier ground because alfalfa’s deep root system holds soil together and aids water movement. “It’s a great cover crop,” he explains. The Mulkeys also incorporate alfalfa in their no-till practice to combat wind erosion.
He hasn’t chisel-plowed anything in a couple of years, either, moving instead to conservation tillage. “We’re not discing very deep – just enough to tear the old crop up and leave it for cover so the ground isn’t bare for winter.” Crop residue can build soil and also may contribute to better yields and less erosion.
Many ditches and waterways dissect Mulkey’s land at the junction of the Wabash and Ohio rivers. “If you see a ditch in a field, you’re losing soil,” he says. Mulkey lives next to a drainage ditch he calls Black River that flooded its banks five times this spring. “Every year we’ll have water out, but it seems like it’s worse [now],” he says.
Managing surface runoff from those ditches can be a challenge. The Mulkeys use terraces on their hillsides to reduce erosion and save top soil. In the last 20 years, they have invested a considerable amount of resources into building and maintaining those terraces.
Their installation of field tile has also changed over the last two years due to heavier and more frequent rains each spring. “We used to just tile the wet places,” Mulkey says. Now, they’re laying 4-inch tile 50 feet apart throughout the entire field.
“It’s expensive, but we’re going to try it.”
Timing is everything
Even with efforts to start earlier, the planting window continues to narrow. It seemed to Mulkey that it rained about every other day this spring. Just when he thought it was dry enough to plant corn, another shower came — perhaps only a half-inch, but it fell on ground that was already saturated.
“When I was young, we did not plant corn until May 10 no matter what the weather was,” Mulkey says. “Then we moved to May 1. Nowadays, we start April 7 if we can.” Early planting of today’s hybrids typically results in higher yields, and farmers miss the high-yield window if they plant after May 10.
This year, Mulkey Farms couldn’t start planting corn until May 15. They replanted on June 4 in a field near Black River, but the water was out of that ditch again shortly thereafter. June 29 was the latest Mulkey has ever replanted corn.
“That 240-bushel corn is gone,” he says. “Any day that we plant after May 10, we lose about a bushel a day.”
He has also seen changes in producing alfalfa hay. “My dad would keel over if he saw us bale hay now,” says Mulkey, who used to catch grief if he wasn’t out by 7:30 a.m. baling hay by hand. Today they don’t start until 9:30 a.m. because of heavy dew. Fortunately, their equipment helps make up that time.
Mulkey’s region was 17 inches above normal rainfall this year. The hay is usually burnt up and ready to mow by August, but rain delayed that.
“How often does that happen that we have big rains in August?” Mulkey asks.
Pricing the priceless
Climate change threatens to reduce yields. However, Mulkey says, “a good farmer is going to do whatever it takes to put a crop in the ground.”
Advanced technology is helping producers adapt to climate change, but at what cost? Mulkey puts a lot of money into new equipment, technology and chemicals for better precision and accuracy. He’s willing to do what it takes to protect his priceless soil.
“We buy all this technology so that we can do a better job,” Mulkey says. While seed and chemicals are more expensive, his equipment allows him to put them where they need to be. Precision is important, considering he applies only 1.2 ounces of some chemicals per acre.
The alfalfa weevil is one of Indiana’s early-season crop pests. “We spray for alfalfa weevil every year,” Mulkey says. He remembers spraying the field only once when he was younger. “We never even went back; we knew we got them.” This year he sprayed four times. Mulkey has changed pesticides to combat the weevil despite increasing costs, from $5 per acre to about $25 per acre, plus the cost to spray.
Mulkey also recently invested $15,000 in autosteer capabilities on a tractor to plant soybeans. “It’s all expensive — I don’t care what brand of equipment you get,” he says.
Mulkey is constantly juggling expenditures. He hopes one field of corn can pay for the next bill due.
“We spend money on this farm like water, but what I’m worried about is: Can we get it back? I don’t know a farmer who doesn’t think about that stuff, especially in a year like this,” he said. “It drives me crazy.”
Corn prices were almost $7 back in 2012. “You didn’t have to be a very good farmer to make money,” Mulkey says. “A farmer anymore has to be everything.”
But Mulkey perseveres. He has always paid his bills on time. “We’ve been very fortunate and blessed,” he says. He’s going to grow crops in the face of climate change and take care of his land in the process.