Adrian Op’t Hoog knew he was taking on a challenge when he bought about 200 acres that had been in cow-calf production for generations.
There were 16 different fields and pastures, many separated by stone fences, piled up over years from the rocky ground near Feversham.
Two years in, the soil is covered and the farm is producing crops.
Why it matters: Op’t Hoog’s work can serve as a template for other farmers creating larger fields in lower-quality soil, while trying to maintain soil health.
Op’t Hoog’s farm was the site of a crop walk by the Grey County Soil and Crop Improvement Association, where farmers learned from Op’t Hoog and other local crop experts about the process he has gone through.
Op’t Hoog is a broiler farmer who is converting his broiler barns to organic chicken. He moved to the area about 24 years ago, buying 10 acres with a broiler breeder operation on it.
He’s since grown the farm and added more acreage, including the former cow-calf farm, which he started to rehabilitate after he purchased the property in 2015. Most of the work has been done in the past two years.
Stones are the biggest challenge. They’d been collected in piles around the farm, and the land in pasture had hidden stones close to the surface. There were large stones in some of the pastures that had to be moved.
The need to get the work done was precipitated by the fact he couldn’t get a 12-foot drill into a couple of the fields.
A decision on whether to pick the stones, with a 20-foot stone picker, or pulverize the stones meant time spent researching. Op’t Hoog says he’s had some stones pulverized on his farms in the past, but went with having them picked as the pulverizer breaks up stones, but also anything in the soil, including soil structure.
It also helped that the stone-picking contractor was available first. Op’t Hoog says he did find that running the stone picker through the soil multiple times was bad for the soil structure.
There’s little evidence now that the farm was so filled with rocks. They are mostly now buried 10 feet below the surface in a low area that needed some lifting.
The topsoil and some clay subsoil were scraped away. It was put back over the rocks, and then the subsoil was returned, helping to make one area of the rolling farm more level.
A good portion of the farm ended up with some change to it, whether because of the stone picker or other work done on the farm to move out trees and fencerows. That meant some areas that were less than stable; the top of a hill washed significantly when a flash three-inch rain arrived. The soil had to be moved back to the top with a bulldozer, adding the cost of the project for Op’t Hoog.
He says he wasn’t happy taking out so many trees but plans to plant more on another part of the farm.
Op’t Hoog has been diligent with making sure the soil is covered, with grains and rye seeded when necessary as cover crops. This summer, two portions of the farm are in barley, with the centre of the farm in a spring grain, basically as a cover crop.
There’s also a seven-acre lake — much of the year a swamp — on the property.
The area where a yard was for the cattle for many years was actually a depression and also had to be filled in.
After all that work, Op’t Hoog is focused on long-term soil health, with a goal to plant the whole farm using no-till practices and a five-crop rotation.
His agronomist, Deb Campbell of Agronomy Advantage, was the leader of the program at the Op’t Hoog farm and has been helping him since the start of the farm renovation project.
“I’ve been quite fascinated by this process,” she said.
Op’t Hoog says he expects there will be more weed seeds in his manure due to his transition to using organic seed. No-tilling the crops should help keep the weeds seeds on the surface versus tilling them into the soil and creating a long-term weed-seed bank.
He plans to spread poultry manure into a growing cover crop in the fall, and then no-till the main crop the next spring.
Op’t Hoog bought a no-till precision planter to help him through it — and to plant his other farms.
He enlisted Leon Brubacher of Clifford Precision, a Precision Planting dealer, to put together the unit he wanted.
They found a 20-year-old Flexicoil air cart, with one-third space in the hopper for seed and two thirds for dry fertilizer. They then put Harvest International row units on the tool bar, and outfitted it with much of the latest Precision Planting controls, including down force control, row cleaners that are adjustable in the cab and liquid fertilizer tanks, for the ultimate in fertilizer flexibility.
“The Harvest International row units are very heavy. If you’re using no-till on stony ground, they had better be heavy,” said Op’t Hoog.
About the only major precision planting item the unit doesn’t have are the speed tubes for higher-speed planting.
The inter-row planter is 12 rows at 15-inch spacing. He’s using it for corn and soybeans, but Campbell would like him to try it out for wheat. She’s seen 15-inch wheat work well for some producers.
Then Op’t Hoog would only need one planter unit for most of his crops.
Campbell says she’s also a “huge fan” of planting soybeans with precision planters versus seed drills.
Op’t Hoog says he’s invested significant money into the farm, but with the price of farms, he’s also taken a farm that needed work and raised its value. It will be a few more patient years before he knows what kind of reliable yield he can get out of it.