William Thiele isn’t farming thousands of acres or milking hundreds of cows, but he is eager to share the story of how he uses modern technology to improve his farm. The Thiele family, including William’s twin brother James and their parents Lorraine and Ed, work together to operate their 40-cow dairy in western Pennsylvania.

William was recently presented with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau’s Young Ag Professionals Excellence in Ag Award. This award recognizes young farmers for their involvement in agriculture, leadership and participation in Farm Bureau. As part of the application process for the award, William selected and discussed three issues that affect agriculture.

“I chose dairy, rural road safety and sustainability,” said William. “Then I had to choose one of those issues and to sum up what I have done in that area.” William focused on the sustainability efforts on his farm and neighboring farms, and how he shares his knowledge and learns from others.

William considers sustainability several ways, including the challenge of rising fertilizer prices. “We do a lot of no-till and cover cropping practice to cut down on synthetic fertilizers,” he said. “Cover crops put nutrients back in the soil.” He cited several examples of sustainability resulting from cover crops, including less starter fertilizer on corn and potentially avoiding top-dressing later in the season. He added, “it’s a long-term process that doesn’t happen overnight.”

In his quest to improve soil and learn more about what works on his farm, William has implemented a variety of cover crops, including oats grown as a small grain. “After harvest in July or August, I plant a long-season cover that has a lot of ‘goulash,’ like sunflowers, rapeseed, radishes, buckwheat and hairy vetch,” he said. “After corn silage, we use a different cover crop depending on the growing season, and after soybeans we’d plant something else.” He said that while some cover crops haven’t worked well on his farm, trial and error has guided the family’s cropping decisions.

Like many forward-thinking farmers, William is involved with the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance, an organization he said has helped him broaden his horizons. Last year, the Thieles hosted a no-till field day on their farm where visiting farmers could view experimental cover crop test plots.

“We had about nine different mixes,” said William. “There were more than 50 plant species in the mixes. Because those were grown on my farm, it was a good way to learn about new covers I could use after small grain or longer season crops.”

William has served as a board director for the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance since 2020 and said talking with fellow farmers at meetings has been valuable in helping him expand his knowledge and try new practices. “For example, we used to mow cornstalks after we shelled corn,” he said. “I learned I could plant a cover crop right on it.”

In discussing one of his favorite innovations, the drone, William emphasized that ag technology isn’t just for large farms. In 2016, William and James received a drone for Christmas and immediately began experimenting with technology in the field. William has since obtained a more powerful drone that can fly farther and has features such as obstacle avoidance.

Sustainability, drones and no-till farming

Sixth generation dairy farmer William Thiele, who farms with his family in western Pennsylvania, relies on his drone for crop scouting and field conditions throughout the year. Photo courtesy of Lorraine Thiele

“I use a scouting drone,” said William, adding that he received the required Part 107 FAA license to fly his drone. “I use it to look at crops, especially in spring. When fields start to green up, I can fly over to see if there’s any winter kill. I’ve also used a drone to look at stand counts in corn and beans.”

He said the hilly topography of the farm make it more difficult to view all aspects of a stand, but the drone can easily fly over for an accurate assessment.

The drone has also proven useful for spotting nutrient deficiencies in soybeans during the growing season. If William sees a problem in a field, he consults with a Penn State agronomist to analyze and correct the problem. “I’ve also used the drone over corn,” he said. “I’ve taken shots before and after fertilizing corn, and after a week I can see where I missed some spots in the field.” Since the drone can fly several miles away, it saves William the drive to a field and walking through tall corn to find a trouble spot.

The Thiele Farm dairy herd includes Holsteins and some Angus crosses. Sire selection is based primarily on calving ease. William noted that cow size as well as herd production has increased over time. Milk is shipped to a local independent processor, Marburger Farm Dairy, about 20 minutes from Thiele Farm.

The entire Thiele family works together to keep the farm running smoothly. “All of us can feed and we can all do most of the other tasks,” said William, adding that his mom is the primary feeder. “For the most part, we all do everything thing from grinding feed to mowing hay.”

Manure management involves daily clean out and spreading when the ground is fit. “With the cover cropping we do, we can spread manure on the living cover because the crop will soak it up like a sponge,” said William. “In spring, we spread until it’s time to plant green, so we don’t spread manure on rye that’s tall.”

Manure storage is at the bred heifer barn, which is mostly pen pack manure that’s stored over winter and spread in spring on greening rye. In winter, when ground isn’t suitable for spreading, William can move manure from the milking barn into the storage pit.

William currently serves on the Butler County Farm Bureau Board of Directors. He and James, who was just elected county board president, co-chair their county’s Government Relations Committee. William won the Farm Bureau discussion meet in 2020, and prior to that, he and James received the social media award. William also serves on the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau State Board of Directors.

“I was only 28 at the time I was elected so it was daunting,” he said. “But in my one year of experience, it’s been good and I’ve learned a lot.”

by Sally Colby