Ralph Junior Upton

Summary of Operation

■ 1,800 acres of no-till corn, beans and wheat

■ Rye grass, cereal rye and hairy vetch cover crops Problems Addressed

Difficult soil characteristics. Ralph "Junior" Upton farms poorly drained land characterized by an impenetrable layer, or "plow pan," six to eight inches deep that crop roots typically can't grow through.


Upton, whom everyone calls "Junior," grew up on the land he now farms. His father was a teacher and only dabbled in farming, but Upton loved it, and still does. He began farming full time in 1964, at age 18, on the family's 1,800 acres in southern Illinois, and, over time, perfected his cropping system.

To Upton, the soil became everything. His dominant soil type — Bluford — is poorly drained, especially on the broad summits of his farm's hills and knolls. On slope ranging from 0 to 3 percent, Upton is challenged by the plow pan limiting the soil from holding water. Droughts, even short ones, can be a problem, and heavy rains cause flooding that is slow to recede in low areas.

For years, he did the best he could with the difficult soils he had. He employed tillage and other technologies, but did not think he could actually improve the soil over the long term.

One day, in the mid-1980s, Upton got a magnified view of his soil's limitations. While tearing out a fence, Upton noticed plenty of moisture in the soil about three feet down. Above it sat a compacted layer of soil through which no roots were growing. Upton had a visible confirmation of why, during dry years, the shallow-rooted crops dried up even though there was plenty of water stored in the soil below.

"I began looking for a way to break up that plow pan so my crops could get to the moisture they needed," he says.

Focal Point of Operation — No-till and cover crops

About the same time Upton learned about his soil's plow plan, he began hearing about no-till farming. He wondered if some of the claims might help his soil. He started no-tilling, thinking that it might at least stop further erosion of his soil, and possibly alleviate some of the compaction caused by the plow pan.

A few years later, with the help of University of Illinois Extension Educator, Mike Plumer, Upton started educating himself about cover crops, non-cash crops grown for benefits such as protecting the soil from erosion, providing nitrogen to the following cash crop, helping manage weeds, increasing soil organic matter and providing habitat for beneficial insects. Upton began experimenting with covers in his no-till system, and Plumer helped Junior choose species and set out experimental plots to test their ideas.

Upton began planting cover crops — rye grass, cereal rye and hairy vetch — after harvesting beans and

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