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Soil innovation Jim Harbach uses cover crops and no-till to create superior soils

By Mike Opperman

An old television commercial for Chiffon margarine (see above) warned it was “not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Jim Harbach hasn’t fooled Mother Nature, he’s done his best to match her.

“Our goal is to mimic Mother Nature,” Harbach says. That’s the best way to explain what he and his family have done with the soil profiles on their dairy, Schrack Farms, near Loganton, Pa. With water infiltration rates that average 8" an hour—average for tilled ground is ½" per hour—Harbach has accomplished his goal.

It’s the family’s innovations and the leadership demonstrated in building sustainable land profiles that helped them win the 2018 Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year award, co-sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Herd Management.

Jim Harbach and his wife, Lisa

Harbach and his wife, Lisa, are partners in Schrack Farm Resources with Lisa’s brother Kevin Schrack. Care of the 1,000-cow dairy herd falls on Kevin while Harbach manages the 2,500 acres of crop ground. Acres include about 1,300 acres of corn, 300 acres of soybeans and the rest in alfalfa, grass and small grains.

Schrack Farm Resources is a partnership between Jim Harbach (far left), his wife, Lisa; Kevin Schrack (far right) and his wife, Sharon.

Like any family farm, the Harbach and Schrack families work together to make things tick. That includes Jim and Lisa’s family of Doug and his wife, Ang; Andy and his wife, Tori; and Angela and her husband, Mikey. On Kevin’s side it’s his son, Nathan, and his sister, Karen, and her son, Adam. All the grandchildren pitch in, too. “I can’t emphasize enough how much we appreciate our entire crew,” Harbach says.

NO MORE PLOWS

Harbach says they got into no-till mostly because folks got tired of picking rocks. “We live in a limestone valley with shallow soils and we picked a lot of stones every time we tilled the ground. We no-tilled because we didn’t want to pick stones,” Harbach says. “Years later we began to realize the advantages in the soil structure and lack of erosion that comes with no-till practices.”

Fast forward to the early 2000s and Harbach started using cover crops, again without thinking about sustainability benefits. “We started planting rye as a cover crop to get the feed advantage of the double crop,” he says. Today cereal rye is seeded over all of the crop acres, with the exception of multispecies grasses that are planted after small grains crops.

The rest of the cover crops are worked back into the soil, part of the management practices that have enabled Harbach to build incredible soil profiles. In Harbach’s mind, keeping soil, sediment and nutrients where they belong is essential.

NO SUNSHINE SPILL

“We’ve always been told that the soil feeds the plants. What we’ve learned over the last 10 years is that it’s the plants that feed the soil,” Harbach says. Their goal is to keep ground covered at all times, to avoid what Harbach calls sunshine spill. “If you don’t have crops growing on ground for three or four months at a time covering the ground, that’s basically sunshine spill. The sunshine that’s hitting the bare ground and not hitting a plant is not feeding the soil. When you have soils that are bare you basically have a factory that’s shut down.”

Forages fed to cows at Schrack Farm Resources come from ground rich in nutrients. Cover crops help build the soil while offering quality feedstuffs.

METHANE DIGESTER

Sustainability wasn’t on their minds when Harbach adopted no-till and cover crop management. And, it wasn’t on their minds when the methane digester was installed nearly 11 years ago, either.

“We looked at it as a way to make milk cheaper,” he says.

Today the digester powers a 200-kW generator that runs at about 75% capacity on average year round.

“The power we produce exceeds our power requirements plus another 25%,” Harbach says. “We’re selling power at 7¢ or 8¢ a kilowatt and buying it at 14¢, so there is some cost savings. But environmentally it makes a whole lot of sense.”

Milk from Schrack Farm Resources goes to Dairy Farmers of America.

Being an advocate for soil health is something Harbach is obviously passionate about. “It’s time we start treating our soils like they are supposed to be treated,” he says. “Until we start to restore these soils they aren’t going to infiltrate water like they used to. If that happens, water runs off and so does the soil and nutrients. It’s a pretty simple fix if we would just get people to understand the function of soil.

“We’re finding that everything comes back to Mother Nature. The more we can let Mother Nature and the beneficials and biology work for us the better off we are.”

Credits:

Photos courtesy of Dairy Farmers of America

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