Growing up about 3 miles south of the Bellwood property he has farmed for the past 52 years, Daniel Hilger started getting his hands dirty as soon as he was capable of contributing to his family’s operation.
“I’ve been farming since I was old enough to carry a bucket of feed to the hogs,” Hilger said.
The now 73-year-old moved into his home about 3 ½ miles east of Bellwood when he was 21 and has been tending to his acres ever since. Although he plants traditional cash crops like corn and soybeans like most of his neighbors, Hilger has always thought a little outside of the box when it comes to maximizing his operation.
About 25 years ago, Hilger started experimenting with planting cover crops in an effort to keep his fields in optimal shape. These crops are planted to manage soil erosion, soil fertility, soil quality, water, weeds, pests, diseases and improve the overall biodiversity of a plot of land.
About five years ago, the farmer and his son, Marcus, got serious about laying rye in segments of the approximately 150 acres they plant with traditional corn, soybeans and popcorn.
“In the fall I seed the entire farm down to rye, and then we select so many acres that we are going to leave for seed and then the rest is put into corn (and other crops),” Hilger said. “But we try to rotate that around.”
Three years ago, Hilger purchased a seed cleaner and started processing the rye crop, refining the seed product so that he had the option of replanting or selling quantities to other farmers looking to do similar things.
In 2016, he cleaned 3,000 bushels, followed by years of 10,000, 20,000 and this year, an expected 40,000 bushels of rye seed.
“Do you see a trend there,” he asked, with a laugh? “The main reason why I plant it is because it really helps with weed control, it really suppresses the growth of weeds and many of the weeds are getting herbicide-resistant … There are a lot of weeds that are now Roundup-resistant, and the experts will tell you that in five to six years that hardly any of the herbicides will work anymore.
“So we are really trying to get a jump on the gun here with getting rid of our weeds.”
With the planting of rye paying dividends in his fields and also contributing to his income, Hilger is now in the process of getting his first multi-species cover crop into the ground. He planned on getting it done late last week or earlier this week, however, the approximately 4 inches of rain crashing down on portions of Butler County made that impossible.
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“This will be the first year I’ve done this,” Hilger said. “The experts will all tell you that the more different varieties you have in there, they all kind of do something for the soil."
Generally, Hilger gets his rye into the field in September or October, but that can stretch into November. Moving into the New Year, the previous year’s crops is what is processed, cleaned, reused and sold. With the new multi-species cover crop, Hilger expects the rye incorporated into the overall plant to do fine during the winter, while the added cover crops will simply decompose and provided valuable nutrients to the soil.
Melissa Bartels, innovative cropping and water systems educator for Nebraska Extension-Butler County, said that she is a fan of Hilger’s use of cover crops to benefit his land and push for better yields.
“I think Dan does a really good job of using his cover crops and being an advocate for soil health at just trying to share with people on Facebook through the videos he posts,” Bartels said. “He tries to share his knowledge and he’s one, that if I go to a field day or a conference, I will usually see there because he is always trying to seek knowledge and learn new things.”
In addition to his work with cover crops, Hilger has made a name for himself by starting to grow and sell popcorn about 25 years ago. His popcorn product can be found in places like the Columbus Hy-Vee, Dale’s Food Pride and Didier’s Grocery in David City, among others. One pallet – 64 boxes of popcorn – is shipped to his Lincoln-based distributor every two weeks, he said.
Even though he is aging, Hilger said he doesn’t plan on slowing down his operation anytime soon, noting that his doctors say he is in fantastic shape.
“I will do this as long as I am physically and mentally able – I might slow down a little bit, but as long as I can I’m going to keep doing something. I just don’t idle very well," he said.
And that work will continue happening right where he is - he has no plans of relocating years down the line.
“I always say that the next time I move will be a tenth of a mile west,” he said with a laugh, referencing the Catholic Cemetery down the road.
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at email@example.com.