Four farmers from different regions of Iowa have a common goal: improve soil health on their farm while achieving top-end crop potential. They use the “4R Plus” whole-farm approach to sustainability.
They follow the 4R’s of nutrient stewardship — right source, right rate, right time, right place — to fully optimize the nutrients they apply. The “Plus” is the variety of conservation practices used to protect the soil now and for future generations. They say 4R Plus practices help them achieve their goals of healthier soils and a more productive crop now and in the future.
All four farmers use no-till and cover crops to some extent and say it made a major difference during the challenging 2019 crop season.
No-till, covers make difference
Jasper County farmer Roger Zylstra was introduced to no-till in the1960s and says it gives him peace of mind when the weather is unfavorable. “No-till is the way to go if you want to keep soil in place and improve its structure to support machinery,” he says.
Zylstra encourages farmers to attend educational events, such as meetings and field days, and talk to other farmers who are seeing success with no-till. “The structure of our soil has improved, which allows it to store more water and support the load of machinery better,” he said. “There is plenty of evidence that says you don’t have to turn a field black to grow good corn yields. We can’t afford to lose the soil.”
Curt Mether from Harrison and Monona counties in western Iowa agrees. He began his no-till system two decades ago to protect his farm in the Loess Hills from erosion. Now he’s seeing cumulative soil health benefits that resulted in record yields in 2019. “The soil handles the water so much better and plant health has improved even though we’re planting the same seeds,” he says. “It took a while to get the soil where it is today, but now the crops are reaping the benefits.”
Mether encourages farmers to add 4R Plus practices where they are needed. “I’m convinced tillage is hard on the soil and impacts crops the entire growing season,” he adds. “The quickest way to improve soil structure is to stop heavy tillage. Once you start, you’ll wish you had started no-till sooner.”
Better soil structure
In north-central Iowa, Humboldt County’s Doug Adams saw the differences in tillage systems firsthand this year. He’s working to improve soil structure on a piece of ground new to his no-till and strip-till operation. The land was tilled in fall 2018 and entered his system in 2019. “I noticed I left some ruts on that farm this fall, but I made it a priority to seed cereal rye after harvest as a cover crop to improve the soil,” he says.
Adams adds, “4R Plus practices have helped the ground during difficult years by mediating the weather. When we have excess moisture, soil on my farm is able to soak it up and is easier to work with.”
Weather in 2019 was also less than desirable in eastern Iowa’s Muscatine County, where Mark Heckman of Heckman Farms grows corn and soybeans. A wet planting season left some acres unplanted, dryness set in during the middle of the growing season and then rains resulted in a wet, prolonged harvest. He’s glad conservation practices like no-till and cover crops are well established. “I believe this helped protect yields during the dry spell,” he says.
Also, Heckman says improving soil aggregate helps support the weight of machinery during a wet planting and harvest season. “While the weather was less than ideal in 2019, we are still seeing benefits from soil health improving. Given all that was thrown at the crop this year, I’ve got to be happy with yields.”
Challenges to seeding covers
Something else all four farmers have in common: They didn’t get all their intended cover crop acres seeded this fall. Cover crops provide a variety of benefits, including erosion control, improving water infiltration, keeping nutrients in the soil, building organic matter, suppressing weeds and protecting Iowa’s water quality.
Adams plans to seed oats in the spring if weather cooperates. Cover crops are an important part of his nutrient plan. His nitrogen tests signaled cover crops do their job of recycling nutrients. “I think it’s possible I’ve been using no-till and strip till along with cover crops long enough to see the payback,” he says.
Zylstra, Mether and Heckman also say cover crops are beneficial for their fall manure applications. “We like cover crops because they add organic matter and help firm the ground for the manure injected in the fall,” Zylstra says. “Years like 2019 remind me how important it is to drill down on the 4R’s of nutrient management. We need to be placing nutrients correctly.”
Zylstra wishes he had paid more attention to nutrient management earlier in his farming career. “I could have saved a lot of money if I had started soil testing sooner,” he says. “Managing fertility for grain weight is a lot more important than trying to build high nutrient levels on whole fields.”
As these farmers analyze harvest data to develop their nutrient plan for the 2020 crop season, they will also be investigating plans to seed cover crops in spring. Heckman plans to prioritize the acres he believes would benefit from spring-planted cover crops. “I’ll look at the fields where I have concerns about erosion and controlling weeds,” he says. “If the weather cooperates in the spring for seeding cover crops, we can still see a lot of benefits.”
Mether is disappointed temperatures got too cold to plant cover crops this fall. Still, he’s pleased with the amount of crop residue from harvest that will help protect the soil this winter.
Weather uncertainties in 2020
Following two consecutive years of wet harvest conditions, these farmers are concerned what 2020 might bring. “The reality is we aren’t in control of the weather and need 4R Plus practices to protect our soil,” Zylstra says.
Adds Heckman, “Our family is committed to being good stewards to the land. We cherish our land and take care of it. We look for ways to farm smarter by using 4R Plus practices.”
For more information, visit 4rplus.org.