On Farm Trial: Hu-Lane Farm LLC's long term No-Till

Most years, driving by Hu-Lane Farm LLC in Albion, NY may seem like driving by any other farm in Western NY. Like a lot of farms in the area, partners Hugh and Eleni Dudley, their son Kurt, and grandson Jesse Farwell, grow corn, soybean, hay, and a handful of other crops on 1,200 acres. 

 Hugh Dudley discussing the past growing season at WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Annual Meeting in December 2016.

Hugh Dudley discussing the past growing season at WNY Soil Health Alliance’s Annual Meeting in December 2016.

Though appearances can be deceiving under average weather conditions, this family farm looked noticeably different from other area farms during the 2016 drought, putting out impressive yields despite record low precipitation. What’s the secret to their success? Hugh Dudley attributes the farm’s resilience during less-than-favorable conditions to his 25 years of minimum tillage (min-till), life-long commitment to crop rotations, and extensive drain tiling that covers 100% of Hu-Lane’s acreage. 

While Dudley has always been a strong advocate and user of crop rotations, his transition to min-till was a long, and sometimes bumpy, road. Dudley was interested in min-till (a term commonly used by Canadian farmers) from the early 1960s, when as an Agriculture teacher at Albion High School, he started learning more about the technique through a Canadian farming expo field trip he attended with his Future Farmers of America (FFA) class. During his teaching career, he worked with FFA to experiment with min-till methods in Orleans County primarily for educational purposes. From these experiments, Dudley knew there was still a lot to learn and a lot to be done, but that in general, min-till greatly reduced weed pressure, and was a truly promising alternative to conventional tillage that could save farmers a lot of time and money. 

A few years later, in the early 70s, Dudley decided to take the day off school and head up to London, ON to attend the Innovative Farmers of Canada annual conference. While there, his interest in min-till was further stoked, and he gained insight on how he could convert his planter for min-till. This was during a time that monoculture was becoming increasingly popular in the Northeast, a concept that went against the grain of everything Dudley had always done with his multi-year rotations, making Orleans County look more and more like the Midwest. Despite pressure to do the same, Dudley carried on with his diversified crop rotations and continued to work toward transitioning to min-till. 

For years, Dudley experimented with min-till methods, having breakthroughs and setbacks like any other farmer trying something new. While Dudley has never experienced a complete crop failure, he did struggle with min-till early on. During his trials, Dudley came to the conclusion that his biggest obstacle in min-till was variable drainage, which ultimately led to variable yields. While his soils were generally healthy from years of careful crop rotation and management, each year he struggled to start the season with ideal moisture conditions. To control that variable, Dudley purchased a drain tile plow in 1990, started laying drain tile, and never looked back. Since then, Kurt Dudley has taken over much of the drain tile work and often lays drain tile for other farmers in the area as an additional income source for the farm. 

 Hugh and Eleni Dudley’s son and business partner Kurt lays drain tile for other farmers in the area using Hu-Lane’s drain tile plow.

Hugh and Eleni Dudley’s son and business partner Kurt lays drain tile for other farmers in the area using Hu-Lane’s drain tile plow.

“Every year’s going to be different. There’s no such thing as average.”
— Hugh Dudley

Much as Hu-Lane’s success can be attributed to their soil health management, it can also be attributed to their overall willingness to adapt and try new enterprises, such as laying drain tile, or aerial broadcasting cover crops. Over the years, Hu-Lane has seen a handful of enterprises come, and sometimes go. In addition to growing their standard cash crops, Hu-Lane are seed producers, and have in the past had a large beef herd (a small portion of which Kurt continues to manage), a hog operation, and a christmas tree farm. 

 Grandson and business partner, Jesse Farwell aerial broadcasts cover crop seed on Hu-Lane’s, as well as other area farmers fields. This method is much in the experimentation phase.

Grandson and business partner, Jesse Farwell aerial broadcasts cover crop seed on Hu-Lane’s, as well as other area farmers fields. This method is much in the experimentation phase.

As for the 2016 growing season, which was plagued by drought that caused crop damage throughout Western NY, Hu-Lane saw small decreases in their yields, but still managed to have a very successful season. Growing corn, soybean, wheat, snap beans, peas, sweet corn, hay, and barley as cash crops, Hu-Lane yielded an average of 190 bushel/acre of corn (average 240 bushel/acre typically) and an impressive 74 bushel/acre on soybean. One 40 acre soybean field even put out 80 bushel/acre with no irrigation. Dudley attributes the successful season to the fact that they were able to plant earlier than many farmers. After years and years of min-till, their fields have excellent structure, and thanks to their subsurface drainage tile, their fields are workable earlier in the season without causing compaction. “We don’t make ruts.” Dudley states, quite plainly. As a direct benefit of getting planted earlier, the crops were able to establish themselves while there was still some spring moisture in the soil, getting their roots pushed down deep into the high quality, water holding soil where moisture and nutrients were more readily available throughout the season.

Looking to the future, Dudley plans to experiment more with cover cropping, a practice he’s only recently gotten on board with in the last few years. The difficulty of establishing cover crops after harvest has always been significant in this region because of our short growing season, but Dudley sees interseeding as a truly viable option. While Dudley concedes that there’s still plenty of logistical concerns that need to be sorted out, Hu-Lane’s success in establishing aerial broadcasted barley into corn and soybeans in 2016 provides a good starting point for future trials on their own farm. Hu-Lane has also recently made changes to their farm to increase their irrigation capacity. While their crops fared well enough with only 120 of their 1,200 acres being irrigated (3”) in 2016, they are looking to increase their resilience to drought by increasing the size of their farm pond, which is pumped by an old windmill purchased at auction, a project that was completed in Fall 2016. Something Dudley would like to improve on in the future is the farm’s use and understanding of irrigation technology to make their water usage as efficient as possible.

Hu-Lane Farm set an excellent example for other local farmers this year, by demonstrating fully the benefits that can come from a long-term commitment to min-till. While Dudley is hesitant to use the fairly new and very popular term “soil health practices”, he is quick to point out that the general concepts have been around for a very long time. He remembers the textbook he used as a young Agriculture teacher in the early ‘60s and how so many of the ideas he hears discussed now at soil health workshops were in there as well, just without any sort of official name or terminology. He's glad to see an increased interest in the methods he’s been practicing for most of his farming career, and despite early warnings that he “doesn’t like to talk much” is often more than happy to talk with younger farmers about all his successes, setbacks, and funny stories that come with a lifetime of farming. 

Hugh Dudley’s Top 5 Tips

1. Drainage is key. If you want to be able to no- or min-till in this area, you need to have your soil moisture under control.

2. Crop rotations are absolutely essential. 

3. Take it easy on your soils — “if it’s too wet, don’t plant.” It’s not worth the compaction.

4. Do your soil testing and make sure to scout crops. Find problems as early as possible and “chase them” until you know what went wrong and how to avoid that problem in the future. 

5. “Always kill clover in the fall.” The vigorous root system makes it too strong by spring and you’ll spend lots of time, money, and herbicides trying to get it under control.