Isley Family, Palmyra, MI

Adopting Prescription Technology to Improve Crop and Water Quality

The Isley family farm takes prescription inputs to the next level by adding a planter and sidedress bar injection unit to benefit the crop, water quality and profits.

Being part of the solution—from farmland conservation to soil health and water quality—has long been a mission of Sunrise Farms, established in 1865 in southeastern Michigan. Sixth-generation farmer Jake Isley works with his parents, Jim and Laurie, to continually improve their cropping practices and profitability at a sub-acre level that builds soil health to keep nutrients out of the drainage system.

Recognized in 2021 as an American Soybean Association (ASA) Conservation Legacy Award winner, the Isleys never pause their innovative ways. With the help of a Walton Family Foundation grant, they’ve purchased a direct-inject system for mounting on the planter and sidedress bar to spoon-feed inputs and protect nitrogen according to sub-acre field data.

“We want to ensure we are stewarding our expensive nitrogen investment,” Jake says. “By adding nitrogen stabilizer to the injection system, we can vary the sidedress rate based on loss potential by acre, placing the nitrogen so the corn crop takes it up. The last thing we want is to apply nitrogen to a field and have it leave to perhaps cause a water quality issue.”

The Isleys also believe this technology will help test variable-rate inputs such as fungicides and biologicals. “We want to precisely inject products into our starter at planting using rates matched to areas in a field that need or don’t need these inputs,” Jake says. “It’s all about evaluating what’s right for a given year and thinking outside of the box to improve everything we do. This technology will help us decide if a biological nitrogen source can help reduce our need for synthetic nitrogen,” he adds.

Buffer strips and control structures

A focus on building soil health and improving water quality began over a decade ago on this Palmyra township strip-till corn and no-till soybean farm. “We began by installing 10- to 20-foot-wide grass filter strips along our drainage system even though our land is mostly flat with little surface drainage,” Jim says. “Over time, we’ve added 22 water control structures to our sub-surface drainage tile system to control water levels in our fields. In addition, we’re working with Michigan State University researchers as they monitor water quality daily so we can learn what we don’t know.”

The most significant farm change occurred following the drought of 2012 when Jake and his dad decided their cropping system and soils lacked resiliency to handle weather extremes. “We knew we had to transform that powdery soil and build structure and organic matter using less tillage. So, we shifted away from a three-pass system to one-pass strip-till corn and no-till soybeans. That change led to exploring cover crops so our cropping system would have roots in the ground year-round,” Jake says. “It was a mindset change where we no longer viewed the ground we farm as dirt, but as a living, active soil. We’ve learned there’s more taking place in that soil than we ever thought or could understand.”

By the time the 2014 drinking water ban happened for several days in Toledo due to a Lake Erie algal bloom, the Isleys saw improved soil structure changes leading to better water infiltration and reduced runoff thanks to less tillage and cover crops. “Since all our land is in the Western Lake Erie Basin, we want to make sure we’re doing everything to mitigate runoff and keep water quality top of mind. By timely banding nutrients based on frequent soil testing, we’re doing what’s right for both economics and the environment,” Jake says.

Cover crop, less tillage improves soils

With these cropping and conservation practices in place, the Isleys expanded their cover crop experience to have living roots year-round on all their acres, using aerial seeding of annual ryegrass in September. “We like annual rye because we get a pretty good stand with aerial seeding, it produces a large root mass, and we’ve been able to terminate in the spring,” Jake says.

This family farm has learned that soil benefits are numerous with cover crops. “They keep the topsoil in place to eliminate our water and wind erosion. The plants scavenge nutrients to improve water quality. And cover crops make our farm more resilient and sustainable by building soil structure that captures more water so crops can better handle weather extremes,” he adds.

Both Jim and Jake realize that change doesn’t happen overnight, and both are thankful they share the innovation and open-minded spirit of their previous farm generations. But more important to them beyond legacy is paying this conservation knowledge forward to area farmers as they work together to improve the local watershed and downstream lakes.

“We’re grateful to ASA, the Walton Family Foundation and many others who provide money to farmers to implement conservation practices. But more than money, the real benefit is doing what’s best for the land, best for the future,” Jim says. “A healthier soil will produce more with fewer inputs. So, today’s efforts will influence a better outcome in two years, in 20 years, even 200 years down the road.”

Encouraging others to try it

Laurie Isley, a longtime agricultural youth educator, uses her farm background to share their conservation legacy story through her work with state and national soybean associations. “It’s important to look beyond how past generations have farmed. We’ve certainly learned from other farmers regarding their experiments with practices like strip-till and cover crops. We try to pay this forward by holding meetings here to share what we’ve learned. And it was truly gratifying recently to see a neighbor down the road adopt strip tillage,” she adds.

Jake sums up the family’s approach to conservation and sustainability as creating a sustainable system in terms of profitability and what’s best for the land and soil while improving water quality. “By creating a system for soil health, it will produce a healthy product. Ultimately, we want to implement best practices for our family farm and, in turn, they’re best for our neighbors and our communities,” he adds.

ASA is proud of its conservation legacy and partnership with The Walton Family Foundation. The Walton Family has a long legacy of love for the outdoors. This Mississippi River effort, part of its 2020 Environment Strategic Plan, aims to work with organizations like ASA to align policy and market incentives to encourage farmers to adopt practices that improve water quality, improve soil health and reduce pollution across the basin.