Which conservation tillage management system is right for my farm?

Iowa farmers constantly seek to lower production costs, protect the environment, and conserve natural resources. Adopting conservation practices works hand in hand with paying attention to the basics of production efficiency to achieve all three of these goals.

This post focuses on the first of three in-field conservation practices covered in the manualtillage management.

First things first, let’s define no-tillage and strip-tillage as we have used them in the manual.

No-tillage: Agricultural practice where crops are grown in undisturbed soil and plant residue at the surface.

Strip-tillage: A system with less than one-third of the row width tilled to create a seedbed. The strip- tillage system leaves more than two-thirds of the row width undisturbed between tillage zones.

Together these systems help better protect the soil from erosion by minimize soil surface disturbance.

Tips for success when using these conservation practices

How do you know which system will work best for your fields? Check out the tips and easy to use decision trees below as a starting point. Don’t forget to check out the manual for more great tips on adding no-tillage and strip-tillage to your farm.

Tillage Residue Management at a Glance

Success with tillage residue management is defined by your ability to meet both row crop production and conservation goals. The table below summarizes tillage management methods for corn and soybean rotations and assigns a relative success rate along with a level of confidence based on published research. There are links to additional resources on pages 58-61 of the manual.

Be sure to check out our YouTube video series on Converting Your Planter for No-Till Operation and our recent webinar – Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020​​​​​​​ for more great information.

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Saving Time (and money) with Conservation

ILFHeader(15-year)On this month’s episode of the Conservation Chat, host Jacqueline Comito catches up with Ben and Andy Johnson, cover crop farmers in the Conservation Learning Labs(CLL) project in Floyd County. Ben was previously featured on the chat in 2017 as the CLL was completing the first year. Now three years in, they are pleased with benefits of cover crops in their no-till and strip-till system and plan to continue using them on as many acres as they can get seeded.

Ben and AndyThe Johnsons farm together raising corn and soybeans and managing a ewe and feeder lamb herd. With time as a limiting factor, they started using no-till 15 years ago and began strip-tilling their corn acres for over ten years. They have noticed significant changes in increased infiltration of heavy rains and reduced soil erosion, compared to neighbors who use more intensive tillage practices.

“We’re more competitive because of the conservation. There are a lot of farmers in our area that were attending meetings last year on ‘You didn’t get your tillage done, what are you going to do?’. We were planting as guys were trying to do tillage this spring,” stated Johnson. “We started planing on Easter this year (around April 21st). Our fields were fit then and we started planting corn and soybeans – even with our limited manpower because we’re not running a field cultivator.”

In addition to soil and water quality benefits, the labor and time savings make the Johnsons true supporters of no-till and strip-till.

“If it didn’t work, I wouldn’t do it. I’m just like everyone else. If I thought I could plow that field and have 20 bushels more corn, that’s probably what I would be doing,” noted Ben.

When asked what was meant by working, Andy responded “If I can save on time and labor and still have the same yields or better. I would rather be with my kids than pulling an implement through the field.”

Be sure to listen the rest of the chat to hear how about the other benefits they are experiencing and learn more about the CLL project.

Find the Conservation Chat on iTunes and subscribe today!

Liz Juchems 

Farmers Encouraged to Keep the Stubble During No-Till November

RuggedlooktwittergraphicThe Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is once again encouraging Iowa farmers to “keep the stubble” on their harvested crop fields and improve soil health during No-Till November.

First launched in 2017, the NRCS project is mirrored after the national cancer awareness No Shave November campaign that encourages people not to shave during the entire month. The NRCS campaign encourages farmers to keep tillage equipment in their machine sheds this fall and keep the crop stubble on their fields. In the past two years, the campaign has reached more than 1 million people.

“No-till farming is a cornerstone soil health conservation practice, which also promotes water quality while saving farmers time and money,” said Iowa NRCS State Conservationist Kurt Simon. “One of the first soil health principles is ‘do not disturb’. This campaign is a fun way to remind farmers about the important relationship between tillage and soil health.”

Improving soil health increases soil biological activity, which provides erosion control, nutrient benefits, and can simulate tillage.earthwormktwittergraphic“No till is a different management tool because timeliness is very important for planting and weed control. I really like it, though. I like knowing that there is biological activity below the ground. You dig down six inches and the earthworms are there. The worms are my tillage tool,” said No-Till Farmer Gene DeBruin, Mahaska County, Iowa.

The campaign grew from an idea shared by NRCS Area Soil Scientist Neil Sass. “The impact has been much wider-reaching than I’d expected. I’ve seen #StubbleSelfie cutouts in Co-ops and ag services offices, but also in labs, schools and lots of fun media,” he said. “I think that this promotion has been a fun way to draw awareness to Soil Health, just like the OG No Shave November promotion has done for cancer awareness.”

Download your cutout template here!

For more information about soil health and the No-Till November campaign, please go to www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov.

Protecting our soil – a finite resource

ILFHeader(15-year)Why bother changing your tillage system?

That’s the exact question Brent Larson and his family asked themselves about 10 years ago as they considered using a no-till and strip-till system in their Webster County farming operation.

IMG_0048Answer: Fertile topsoil is a finite resources!

“Recreational tillage, especially ahead of soybeans, is depleting our topsoil and organic matter,” stated Larson. “We realized tilling wasn’t helping or necessary. So we switched to no-till soybeans and strip-till for corn about 10 years ago and added cover crops about 8 years ago.”

By reducing their tillage, Larson and his family were able to save time and reduce input costs like fuel, labor and equipment costs. This ultimately has increased net income and puts less money on the line each year.

An additional benefit of their system is the protection from soil erosion, improved soil structure and drainage.

LichtBlog-01“We want to grow our soil – saving the soil from erosion is the first step. We want to make sure that not only can we farm this land for the next 40+ years, but so can future generations to come. Soil erosion is insidious! It is can be difficult to see, making it easy to ignore in the short term,” commented Larson.

Larson also works as a farm manager for Sunderman Farm Management and shared some parting advice to farmers and landowners, alike.

“Surround yourself with can-do people, not can’t do people. Communication between landowners and tenant is key to protect the soil and implement conservation. Take that first step and bring the topic up in your next conversation. Determine your goals and make a plan to achieve them!”


If you weren’t able to attend this event, there are more opportunities to attend one of our upcoming field days!

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00pm
Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

Liz Juchems

 

Spring Field Day Season Has Arrived!

ILFHeader(15-year)The 2019 Iowa Learning Farms field day season begins on March 26th and includes a series of five cover crop, no-till and grazing workshops and field days. Please plan to join us at one near you!

March 26 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Greene County Extension Office
104 West Washington St
Jefferson, IA 50129
Greene County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 27 – Cover Crop and Grazing Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

McNay Research Farm
45249 170th Ave
Chariton, IA 50049
Lucas County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

March 28 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Titan Machinery
3093 220th St.
Williams, IA 50271
Hamilton County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu
Press Release
Flyer

April 9 – Cover Crop and Water Quality Field Day
5:00-7:00PM

Rob Stout Farm
2449 Hemlock Ave
Washington, IA 52353
Washington County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

April 10 – Cover Crop and No-Till Workshop
12:00-2:00PM

Steier Ag Aviation
202 190th St
Whittemore, IA 50598
Kossuth County
RSVP: 515-294-5429 or ilf@iastate.edu

See you there!

Eval Cover (2)

Liz Juchems

No-till and cover crops working together in central Iowa

ILFHeaderCover crops are growing in popularity across the state as a way to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality and soil health. In central Iowa, where fall tillage is common, there has also been increasing interest in no-till — especially no-till soybeans thanks to innovative farmers like Mike Helland leading by example in Story County.

IMG_0065Mike hosted a field day last Thursday near Huxley to share his experiences using cover crops in his operation. While there was significant interest in the benefits of cover crops, including a credit on crop insurance, the majority of the questions and discussion was around using no-till in central Iowa where the soils tend to be heavier and wetter than other soil regions.

Mike began no-tilling soybeans in 1993 after attending the Farm Progress Show the year before. That first year the soybeans yielded better than the other fields so he decided to try it again the next year. After similar results, he began no-tilling all his soybeans in 1995.

“Tillage is one of the root causes of compaction,” stated Helland. “This year, the no-till soybean ground was holding up our equipment instead of sinking in like some of our neighbors. I love planting no-till beans – it’s such a smooth ride!”

As we headed back inside, Mike was joined by fellow farmers Aaron Lehman and Mark Kenney on a panel to discuss how they are using cover crops in their conventional, organic and seed corn operations, respectively.

IMG_0078

Left to right: Aaron Lehman, Mike Helland, and Mark Kenney

 “I thought there’s got to be something better than seeing the fields black, allowing soil to wash and blow away following seed corn harvest,” commented Kenney. “So we started seeding oats after harvest to protect our Century Farm. There is no natural system that leaves the soil black, so his is our effort to keep the soil protected!”

IMG_1800As the panel wrapped up, Helland shared this great piece of advice, “Everyone should try cover crops on 10 acres. It doesn’t cost much and who knows – you might like it!”

We have a few more field days still on the schedule, visit our events page to find one near you and RSVP today!

If you missed this field day, be sure to tune in to our webinar December 12th at Noon to learn how #NotillB4Beans and #CoverYourBeans can help save time and money.

Liz Juchems

 

The field day was hosted by Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Farmers Union, the Soil Health Partnership, the Iowa Seed Association, the Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Clean Water Initiative, Iowa Corn, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Iowa Learning Farms.

Register to Attend 2018 Conservation Tillage Conference in Fargo!

strip-till-jodiUniversity of Minnesota Extension and North Dakota State University Extension Service are co-hosting the 2018 Conservation Tillage Conference on Dec. 18-19 in Fargo, ND at the Hilton Garden Inn Conference Center.

Roll up your sleeves for some practical, hands-on information that will save you soil, time, fuel, and money. This conference emphasizes proven farmer experience and applied science. Straight from the fields, learn how heavier, colder soils aren’t necessarily the challenge they’re made out to be. Hear from long-time no-till, reduced tillage, and cover crop farmers as they share their experiences, so you can be spared the same hard-learned lessons.

Whether you are a novice crop consultant or experienced in improving soil health, this conference is for you. The schedule includes a variety of speakers, including experienced growers, agronomists, and academic experts.

Participants will learn about nearly every aspect of improving soil health and productivity:

  • Weed species shift and control
  • Nutrient management in high-residue systems
  • Reduced till and cover crop strategies straight from veteran farmer practitioners
  • Proven cover crop strategies for your system to anchor nutrients, manage moisture extremes and provide free nitrogen
  • Soil health improvements with reduced till systems and cover crops
  • Vendor Sessions: Learn about new equipment, products and technology

Informal table talk sessions will follow to allow time to interact with speakers and industry. Three expert panels will share multiple methods for improving soil health and their bottom lines, as well as tricks they’ve learned over the years. Panelists include conservation farmers, skilled crop consultants, and experienced livestock producers.

The two-day conference opens with a keynote speech from Steve Groff, Cover Crop Coaching. Steve is a farmer who is widely known and respected as a cover crop pioneer, innovator, and educator.

More than 20 vendors representing equipment, products, and providing educational information will be on-site throughout both days. Attendees who stay for the entire conference will be offered 10 continuing education units (CEU).

Early bird fee is $140 for the full conference. Prices will rise to $180 after December 3rd, 2018. Register online at DIGtheCTC.com or call 320-235-0726 x2001.

Visit DIGtheCTC.com for more information on the agenda, lodging, program speakers, and to register.

September 19 Webinar: Highlighting the Benefits of Conservation Planning

On Wednesday, September 19th at noon Kevin Kuhn, NRCS Resource Conservationist serving on the Ecological Services State Staff, will highlight the benefits of Conservation Planning for farmers and landowners.

Kuhn Cropped

Kevin Kuhn in a field with cereal rye.

Conservation Planning provides many benefits to the farmer operator, landowner and society through the identification of resource concerns and opportunities to implement practices like no-tillage, cover crops, waterways, saturated buffers, wildlife habitat and more. Kuhn has 30 years of experience working for NRCS assisting landowners with conservation on their farms. He will discuss how conservation planning optimizes the use of conservation practices, saves time and money, and improves water and soil quality.

“Conservation planning is about putting the right conservation system in place that meet the objectives of the landowner, the resource concerns of the specific tract of land, and minimizes offsite resource concerns,” commented Kuhn. “Conservation planning is time well spent.”

DATE: Wednesday, September 19
TIME: 12:00 p.m.
HOW TO PARTICIPATE: www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars and click the link to join the webinar

Don’t miss this webinar! More information about this webinar is available at our website. If you can’t watch the webinar live, an archived version will be available on our website: https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

Liz Juchems

How Drought Affects Soil Health

Dr. Mahdi Al-Kaisi, professor of agronomy and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach soil and water specialist, published a great article on the impacts of drought on soil health and management practices that can help reduce drought effects.

Drought conditions during most of the growing season in Iowa can have a profound impact on soil heath, just as when we have extreme wet conditions. The effect of drought can be noticed very clearly on crop performance when the lack of water availability is severe. This water stress can affect soil chemical, physical, and biological activities that are essential for plant and soil health.

One of the obvious effects of drought on soil health is the lack of nutrient uptake by crops, as water is the major medium for moving nutrients into plants as a result of water uptake. The increase in soil temperature associated with lack of soil moisture has an impact on microbial activities and nutrient processing, both of which are important for plant use for biomass and grain production. Microbial activities in soil generally are controlled by soil moisture and temperature. The departure from the optimum ranges of soil moisture (water field capacity) and soil temperature (approximately 76-86o F), which varies for different microbial communities in soil, can alter microbial activity. Changes in soil temperature during drought conditions can affect soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and increase the release of carbon dioxide. Also, during this process additional mineral N, mostly in the form of nitrate, will be released in the soil system. This change in soil environment affects the stability of SOM and subsequently, affects the soil biological system.

The most profound effect that can be experienced in cropland is the excess release of nitrate which may not be utilized by crops due to the lack of moisture available for the plant to uptake nutrients. This shift in biological and chemical processes during the growing season influences many other relationships that are essential for crop performance, quantitatively and qualitatively, by changing activities that are important to nutrient cycling such as, enzymatic activities, change in soil chemicals concentrations, etc.

Management practices to reduce drought effects
In order to moderate future drought event’s effect on soil health, several practices can be valuable to enhance soil health by improving soil physical, chemical, and biological properties:

  1. Crop residue: crop residue can provide important benefits like improving soil moisture with an increase in soil water infiltration during and off-season as well as increase recharge of the sub-soil profile. The other benefit of residue is the moderation of soil temperature, where crop residue acts as an insulation layer by increasing soil surface reflectance to sun radiation (i.e., change in Albedo, the ratio of the light reflected by surface to that received by it, where residue color is lighter than soil surface). These benefits of crop residue have direct impacts on soil biological and chemical properties by reducing soil temperature and the slowdown of organic matter mineralization. The increase in soil organic matter can increase soil water storage capacity (Fig. 1). The other benefit of moisture conservation and its availability to crops during drought periods is the increase of utilization of nutrients and reduction of nutrient concentration in soil and loss during off-season rain events.
  2. Cover crops: cover crops have many benefits that are critical, especially during drought conditions. The way that cover crops provide such benefits during drought conditions is based on the cumulative effects of cover crops during previous seasons, where they promote better soil biological and physical conditions. It is well documented that cover crops increased soil water infiltration and recharge of the soil profile by improving soil aggregate stability and soil porosity. Furthermore, cover crops contribute to the increase of the soil organic matter pool, which is essential for building soil health.
  3. Balanced crop rotation: crop rotation and diversity of crops within one year or over several years is one of the most important practices that enhance soil health and mitigate drought conditions during the growing season. The diversity of crops on the land can provide a rich soil environment for a healthy and diverse biological system. The inclusion of different crops such corn, soybean, alfalfa, small grain, etc., provides diversity of root systems that promote a wide range of microbial community, therefore enhancing soil nutrient and organic matter pools as compared to a mono-cropping system (i.e., continuous corn).

These practices, in addition to organic amendments, are important in mitigating unexpected drought conditions in the long-term. These practices, along with minimum or no-tillage, can reduce the prolonged impact of drought events by increasing soil resiliency. The degree at which soils in Iowa and the Midwest have absorbed the dramatic impact of drought events was due to the rich soil organic matter content. Factors which contributed to that are the temperate climate and vegetation base (i.e., prairie), which encourage greater organic matter accumulation. This unique soil quality provides high water storage capacity that sustains crop production. So, to sustain such soil quality, we need to maintain it through the implementation of soil health principles by adopting conservation systems.

figure_1_Al-Kaisi drought article 8-23-2017

The article was published by Integrated Crop Management News on August 23, 2017.

Liz Juchems