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

Conservation Best Practices Manual Available for Free Download

The Conservation Learning Group has published the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual to aid farmers in selecting conservation measures appropriate for their farms.

Designed primarily for farmers just starting out through three years of adopting conservation practices, the manual provides a broad range of information that could be beneficial to any producer. The manual is available for free download or in hard copy from the ISU Extension Store.

Covering in-field topics including tillage management, cover crops and diverse rotations, and edge-of-field practices such as wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, controlled drainage and prairie strips, the manual provides detailed information regarding implementation and expected outcomes.

In addition, it includes comprehensive graphical decision tools to aid farmers in determining the best approaches for each area on their farm.

“A primary goal in producing this manual is to help farmers succeed with conservation practices based on the vast array of ongoing research and field studies conducted at Iowa State and beyond. We’ve heard from farmers across the state that sometimes it’s difficult to navigate discrepancies between different research reports and recommendations regarding conservation and water quality practices. With this manual, we’ve pulled together the most important parts from the rich sets of research on cover crops and other conservation efforts in Iowa and presented them using consistent language in an easy-to-use graphical format.”

Mark Licht, assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist at Iowa State and CLG member

The manual was developed based on numerous meetings and working groups among stakeholders, researchers, agency representatives and communications specialists, who worked together to provide a comprehensive resource for farmers. The content was also presented to farmers at multiple events, prior to public release, to gather feedback on usability and the graphical decision tools included.

“This manual will be an excellent tool for our conservation planners to utilize as they work with farmers to adopt these management practices. I was involved in the working groups which discussed the best strategies for farmers who are new to these practices. It’s our hope with this advice that they will be successful early in the adoption of these practices both agronomically and from a conservation standpoint.”

Kevin Kuhn, resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service

Conservation Learning Group will continue to evaluate responses to the manual and update it with emerging information and data from research projects.

“This is not meant to be a static guide. As our experiences and knowledge base grow, we will continue to communicate with producers and provide the best advice we can to maximize their successes with conservation practices.”

Mark Licht

The manual was developed in cooperation with the Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance and Practical Farmers of Iowa, and with the support and input from multiple local, state and federal organizations.

This manual is a joint publication of Iowa State University and USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, supported by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under number 6000004181.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Field days offer opportunity to learn from fellow farmers and landowners

ILFHeaderLearning the best management practices for implementing conservation from fellow farmers and landowners has been a key component for Iowa Learning Farms field days and workshops for the past fifteen years. That continued last night in Grundy Center with two local farmers sitting down for a Q&A session with attendees.

“We can save each other headaches when we learn from each other,” stated Dale Launstein. He and fellow Grundy County Farmer Fred Abels are using cover crops and strip-till on their farms and have experimented with a variety of seeding methods and termination times to find what works best for their operations.


“We had some rye spread with the fertilizer, but the seed was very uneven. Since then I have been using my own (drill) system to get it in seeded right after harvest to get some soil on top of the seed and improving the rye stand,” shared Abels.

Launstein had a similar experience and now prefers to get the rye seed in the ground as soon as possible ahead of soybeans. “It may not grow much in the fall, but I’m after the spring growth to help with weed suppression. I’m getting 75-80 bu/ac soybeans – whole farm average – and the rye is not affecting that. I can make money adding the rye ahead of soybeans as I am able to cut out a pass in the spring and reduce my herbicide expenses.”

The field day also highlighted soil health and water quality benefits of cover crops with presentations from Ann Staudt, Iowa Learning Farms, and Kay Stefanik, Iowa Nutrient Research Center.

IMG_0095As part of an Iowa Learning Farms cover crop research project, Staudt is leading the exploration of common earthworm populations as an indication of soil health.

“On the research farm, our team measured a 30% increase in earthworm populations when cover crops were grown compared to the no cover crop sites right next to them. That rye is like an all you can eat buffet of fresh food for these friends of the farmer, the fisherman and the gardener!” commented Staudt.

Visit our website for more information on cover crops and consider attending one of remaining 2019 cover crops events.


December 5: Cover Crop Workshop

Luana Savings Bank Community Center
100 Harvest Drive
Luana, IA
Partners: Clayton County SWCD, NRCS, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship
Press Release

December 11: Cover Crop Workshop

Dordt University Agriculture Stewardship Center
3648 US 75 Ave
Sioux Center, IA
Partners: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, West Branch of the Floyd River Watershed Project
Press Release


Liz Juchems

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 

Farming for the Future

ILFHeaderDespite the cold, snowy weather we had a great turnout in Nashua last week for a cover crop and wetland field day that highlighted our ongoing Conservation Learning Lab project being conducted in Floyd and Story County.

Ben and AndyParticipating in the Floyd County site are brothers Andy and Ben Johnson. They grow corn and soybeans and manage a ewe flock and feeder lamb operation. The duo are no strangers to conservation and trying new practices. They began no-tilling soybeans over fifteen years ago and have nearly ten years of experience strip-tilling corn.

Their first experience with cover crops was in 2013 following a wet spring resulting in prevent planting acres. They turned to family farming in a nearby watershed project that had been using cover crops in the systems for advice on how to incorporate them into their farming systems as well.

In 2016, they seeded about 477 acres in the project watershed and have been impressed with the improved water infiltration when cover crops were added to their no-till and strip-till system.

Ben Johnson2

“We are able to get in the field plant and harvest 1-2 days before our neighbors due to improved water infiltration. We have maintained or improved our yields since we reduced our tillage,” stated Ben.

“On top of that, we are saving time, labor and fuel by switching to strip-till for our corn acres,” noted Andy.

When asked about changes in soil organic matter Ben responded, “Our soil is already fairly high, so we don’t see as big of changes as people that are starting with lower organic matter. Cover crops help protect soil. I don’t want to start farming a farm that is 6% (organic matter) and leave it to my kids at 4%.”

Be sure to check out this month’s Conservation Chat to hear directly from Ben and Andy. Jacqueline Comito sat down with them before the field day to discuss the project and more!

-Liz Juchems


Developing BMPs through In-Field Conservation Practices Summits


Mark Licht | Assistant Professor of Agronomy and Extension Cropping Systems Specialist, Iowa State University

This past winter I coordinated a series of summits to develop best management practices (BMPs) for three in-field conservation practices. The summits focused on cover crops, no-tillage/strip-tillage, and diverse rotations. Our charge was to develop BMPs that would allow farmers who had no prior experience with the practices to successfully adopt the practices. This was a tall order for a group of people passionate about conservation and the desire to help farmers make the best decisions possible.

These three conservation practices are imperative to the successfully addressing Iowa’s water quality concerns. They also have the ability to address other resource concerns such as soil and wind erosion. Providing a clear message on strategies leading to successful adoption of conservation practices will lead to greater and continued adoption of these practices.

Like adoption of most things, there is the need to learn as much up front as possible. Extension specialists, crop advisers and neighboring farmers are great resources to learn tips and tricks for adopting a new practice. The next aspect is to start with a single field or portion of a field. This builds a comfort level with the new practice and allows more attention to be placed on fine-tuning the new system.

Often times, development of BMPs are straightforward at a broad level but are often dependent on the individualized aspects of each farm operation. There are many considerations that come into play for a recommendation to match the management practice of an individual farmer or field. This made it hard to develop BMPs that were definitive enough to provide guidance that still allowed flexibility. Our approach, where needed, was to discuss some of the considerations that must go into the decisions being made to help guide a management decision rather than prescribe how practices are implemented.

In many cases, there was agreement amongst participants as to what the BMPs were. However, there was nuance as to the details behind the BMPs being developed. This stands to reason because of the complexity that exists within cropping systems and the interaction between management practices, crop productivity, and environmental consequences.

Without going into too much detail, here are some of the main take away points;

  • Cereal rye and oats are the preferred cover crops
  • Corn and soybean management ahead of the cover crop does not need to be altered
  • Aerial overseeding of cover crops should be targeted for August 20 to September 10
  • Glyphosate is the preferred spring termination method for overwintering cover crops
  • No-tillage is recommended ahead of soybean regardless of location, slope, or drainage
  • Strip-tillage ahead of corn is recommended for poorly drained, low slope fields
  • Small grains should follow soybean in diverse and an overwintering cover crop should be used
  • Where markets are available, consider adding alfalfa or forage species into the traditional corn-soybean rotation

The BMPs from these summits are being fine-tuned through this summer and will be rolled out for public review and use in the fall.

In-Field Conservation Practices Summit participants represented Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, Iowa Soybean Association, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, and Natural Resources Conservation Service. The project was funded by USDA-NRCS in Iowa.

Mark Licht

Why Improving the Soil Will Pay Dividends


What does it take to weather-proof a cropping system? Yesterday, during an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield suggested that the answer to that question lies in our soil. He shared research findings that show the importance of soil quality in rain-fed agricultural systems to reduce variation in crop yield and increase yield overall.


Dr. Jerry L. Hatfield

Hatfield, who is Laboratory Director and Supervisory Plant Physiologist at the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, IA, conducts research that focuses on understanding the dynamics of the G x E x M (genetics x environment x management) complex to evaluate the role of soil, with the changing weather, on crop performance. 

Hatfield’s research has found that in rain-fed systems, better soil means a better crop yield, when looking at counties in three Midwestern states. Nebraskan counties, which all used irrigation, were an outlier in the data showing that if you can control the water, the quality of soil is less important. In rain-fed agricultural systems, like we have here in Iowa, the soil quality is very important since the water cannot be controlled—having higher quality soil will lead to higher yield amounts and less variation in yield.


A figure from Hatfield’s presentation, “Good Soils = Good Yields”, showing soybean yields across Iowa, Kentucky and Nebraska counties. (NCCPI = National Commodity Crop Productivity Index)

How can you improve your soil quality? Hatfield suggested the use of strip-till or no-till in the place of traditional tillage. Crop residue on the surface has benefits for the soil—providing food for the complex soil biology and stabilizing the soil micro-climate. Cover crops are another way to improve soil health and further research is being conducted on the benefits of different types and combinations of cover crops. In addition to the benefits to soil quality that no-till and cover crops can provide, they can also sequester carbon, reducing the amount that is released to the atmosphere.

To learn more about how improved soil quality can weather-proof your cropping system, and the use of no-till and cover crops to improve soil quality and reduce carbon loss to the atmosphere, watch the full webinar here.

Tune in next month, on Wednesday May 15 at noon, when Emily Waring, Graduate Research Assistant at Iowa State University, will present an Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled “Cover Crop Impact on Crop Yield and Water Quality: Single Species vs. Mixtures”.

Hilary Pierce