It's all in the soil
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 11/28/2012 8:32 AM
KELLOGG, Minn. — Paul Kottschade leads the way into a corn field now green with oats. The soil flexes like a sponge as he walks.
He kneels in the residue and starts digging. The earth crumbles in his hand when he picks up a handful.
"The health of the food chain all starts with the health of the soil," Kottschade says.
He's been farming since he was old enough to run a pitchfork, learning from his father, Francis.
Francis Kottschade was the state's outstanding conservation farmer in 1985. Only two farmers in Wabasha County have earned that title, Paul Kottschade said, "My dad was one of them."
Some of the first terraces in the county were installed on his dad's land, he said.
Francis Kottschade died May 17, 2006, after suffering a massive heart attack by an apple tree in the yard.
Francis Kottschade taught his son that farmers are but stewards of the land and it's their responsibility to pass it on in as good as or better shape than they received it.
Paul Kottschade said he is continuing along the road his father put him on and taking it to the next level. He strives to put soil into better condition on a daily basis.
His father installed terraces and farmed on the contour. He did surface residue management and crop rotation.
Now, Kottschade selects corn varieties that not only excel in yield, but also have crop residue that decomposes in a timely matter.
"I want this stuff recycling as fast as possible within reason," he said, adding that plant residue that isn't decomposed is nothing but a harbor for pests and disease.
He pays attention to what's happening with soil microbial activity and strives to balance nutrient rates in the soil. He foliar feeds his crops three times a year and scouts his fields two to three times a week. He takes soil samples and tissue tests.
Soil life indicates what kind of job a person's doing on the soil surface, he said.
Kottschade plants mostly corn-on-corn, with some hay in his rotation. He won't have soybeans on the place, saying they're too erosive for the land he farms. He raises all non-GMO corn, which nets him a premium when he markets his grain.
He raised GMO corn one year, but wasn't happy with what he harvested. It takes a far keener manager to raise non-GMO continuous corn, Kottschade said. He declined to give his yields, saying only that "God blessed me extremely well."
Non-GMO seed corn is also cheaper than its GMO counterpart, he said. He paid between $118 and $148 per bag for all the corn he planted for the 2012 season.
This fall, he said God blessed him with the opportunity to plant oats on his harvested ground. He used a fertilizer spreader to spread the oats behind the combine and followed with a disk to incorporate the oats. In the spring, he'll field cultivate and then plant the field back to corn.
The oat cover will prevent soil erosion in addition to providing other benefits. Oats are a tremendous soil conditioner, Kottschade said, and free up minerals not taken up by corn and soybeans.
Oats are also a source of silica, an important nutrient both in the soil and in animals, he said. The silica in the soil is all tied up because of current farming practices that include the use of glyphosate and raising GMO hybrids, he said.
He subscribes to the theories of Don Huber and says agriculture has been moving in the wrong direction since the 1980s when farmers turned to corn-soybean rotations and public universities turned to private money to fund research.
"We live in an economic-driven society," Kottschade said.
The whole food chain is nutrient deficit, he said, reflecting on a Biblical passage about starvation even though their is plenty to eat.
Humans can only screw with nature so long before the guy upstairs straightens things out and he'll straighten things out by way of weather, he said.
That's why it's so important to him to weatherproof the soil he farms and be sure it's ready to feed future generations.
It's also important to him to honor his father's legacy by cherishing the topsoil.