A Tale of Two Trails of Tillage

Last month Iowa Learning Farms participated in a field day about cover crops in Southeast Iowa. After the field day presentations were finished, we were approached by Don Mathews, a farmer from Danville, Iowa. Don shared with us his personal story of how contrasting practices in land management have impacted his land over the past several decades. Don’s story was full of anecdotal evidence about how dramatically soil quality can be changed when conservation practices are continually utilized, or abandoned, after several years time.

We want to share Don’s story with you. We hope you will find inspiration in Don’s tale about the positive impact of conservation practices on soil health for those who commit to its use for the long haul!

Don Mathews purchased his first eighty acres of land in 1962. In 1975, he purchased an additional eighty acres right across the road. After farming the land for several years, he took on an off-farm job in 1978. Don began to use no-till methods on all of his land in the early 1980s. Soon after, it became difficult to balance farming with his other job and family responsibilities, and so Don made the decision to rent his land out to tenant operators, and transitioned to the role of landowner.

Don rented out each plot of eighty acres to two different neighbors. One neighbor continued to use no-till methods to farm his plot, while the other began discing and chisel tilling his plot of land. So began a tale of two side-by-side plots of land, each consisting of eighty acres. These two pieces of land were once managed identically and contained similar soil compositions. Yet when we fast-forward thirty years to the present, Don tells us, the soil in each has become quite different from one another.

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Don’s 26-year-old son has now taken over all of the original land and is farming it himself. Upon taking over operation of the land, Don and his family began to discover contrasts in soil health between these two plots that had been farmed so differently over the past twenty-five years.

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Speaking about his relationship with the tenant who chose not to continue with the conservation farming practices Mathews had established, Don said, “I wish I could go back to the early 1980s with what I know now. I could have suggested to him renting out some of the work and equipment [for planting into no-till land].”

Don’s son, who is using strip-tillage on his field corn and no-tillage on the soybeans, is working with his father on plans to incorporate cover crops onto their fields. Finding themselves in a phase of transition as they attempt to get the land back to where they’d like it to be, the Mathews family planted some cover crops this past year, and have plans to add a lot more in the coming years. They also plan to graze their cover crops, to get the added benefit of manure on the land. Don and his son feel strongly about doing what they can to bring the tilled soils on their land back to the same quality of health as the non-tilled soils.

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When asked if he has advice for other farmers wanting to change the way their land is managed to incorporate more conservation practices, Don says this:

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Thank you to Don for sharing with us his “tillage tale.” Do you have a story you’d like to share with Iowa Learning Farms about implementing conservation practices? We invite you to share your stories with us by emailing them to Brandy at casehaub@iastate.edu.

Brandy Case Haub