No-till on river bottoms
By erasing three words from his vocabulary — can’t, won’t and don’t — Woodbury County farmer Randy Rogers has effectively done what most local farmers have been unable or unwilling to do: successfully strip-till corn and no-till soybeans on land in the Missouri River bottoms.
Since he began farming with his father in 1977, this western Iowa farmer’s career includes a series of trials and errors. But through it all, he has established a profitable and sustainable cropping system on 1,500 acres near Sergeant Bluff that includes very little soil-disturbing activity, like tillage and overfertilization.
Rogers’ Missouri River alluvium soils, such as Luton and Albaton, are silty, clay soils that tend to drain poorly. Most local farmers till these soils to dry and warm the seedbed in the spring. Rogers was like those other farmers until 1996, when he persuaded his business-partner father to trade in the chisel plow and the mulch-finisher for a no-till drill.
The transition was smooth, with only minor management and equipment changes along the way. “The first thing I noticed with no-till is the reduction in broadleaf weed pressure,” says Rogers. “Other weeds like sunflowers and dandelions became an issue, but we addressed them as we went on.”
By the early 2000s, Rogers’ father retired from farming, and only his right-hand man, Kevin Stuhrenberg, who has been by Rogers’ side for 34 years, was there to help on the farm. “It’s amazing how we’ve been able to expand our cropland acres with a reduction in labor,” notes Rogers. “It’s a testament to the time savings that no-till provides. No-till saves me money on fuel and tillage equipment, but also labor. If we were using tillage instead of no-till, we would need at least four people to do what Kevin and I can do with two people right now.”
Soil health is improved
Rogers says time and cost savings are good enough reasons to transition to no-till, but the real reason he did it is to reduce erosion and improve soil biology. “There are windy days out here along Iowa’s western edge where I’m the only one not trading farms across fences,” Rogers chuckles. “I cleaned my ditches before I started no-tilling on this flat bottom ground, and I have yet to clean one ditch out since. With no-till and strip till, the soil doesn’t move.”
Rogers recommends farmers take a spade and dig into their soils no matter what type of tillage system they are using. “You can really tell what’s going on, and what you need to do to improve your soil,” he says.
One of the first things Rogers notices when he digs in his no-till and strip-till fields are earthworm middens, which are small mounds the earthworms build to provide protection from predators when they come out at night to pull food back into their burrow. “Everywhere they go, the earthworms make a pathway for air, water and roots, and worm castings are the perfectly balanced fertilizer,” he says.
“Earthworms do way more for us than we realize. They eat a lot of excess crop residue, so their populations are limited by food availability near the soil surface,” he points out.
In addition to using no-till and strip till to build earthworm populations in his fields, here are some other ways Rogers helps improve soil biology:
• To feed soil microbes, Rogers applies sugar to the soil for supplemental nutrition when he sprays herbicide. “It’s like feeding them a smorgasbord,” he says. “It gives the plant a little kick.” He says sugar also insect-proofs plants, since the bugs aren’t able to metabolize sugar. “The higher the sugar content you use in the spray, the less insect trouble you will have,” says Rogers.
• Applying farm chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia, can kill many of the soil organisms and also compact the soil. Rogers chooses to knife in liquid nitrogen ahead of the planter rather than apply anhydrous. “Anhydrous ammonia was used to harden the ground to build airport runways during World War II,” he notes.
• Rogers has added gypsum the last few years to his soil to lessen compaction. “It’s done a world of good,” he says. “Applying gypsum has changed the texture of the soil noticeably when you start digging.”
His most recent management change involved transitioning to strip-till corn. In the strip-till system, he uses a fertilizer injection shank before spring planting. The strip it creates is about 5 to 6 inches deep and one-third of the row width.
“My in-row emergence has improved dramatically with strip till,” Rogers says. “The seed-to-soil contact is better, and we get a lot better fertilizer use. We inject the fertilizer into the soil with a nitrogen stabilizer added, and we don’t lose any N to volatilization.”
Rogers says strip till has paid dividends three of the last five years. “Cold and wet springs are difficult with no-till corn, but with strip till we were able to get the germination we needed in those cold soils.” While he’s switched to strip till for corn, Rogers continues to no-till his soybeans using a no-till drill.
For more information about crop residue management practices, visit your local NRCS office, or www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov.
Johnson is a public affairs specialist for USDA NRCS in Des Moines.
This article published in the August, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.
Field Conservation Maintenance/Practices