Tradition has it that the heavy- to light-loam soils outside the Red River Valley must be tilled every fall, so come spring, the sun can warm and dry them in preparation for planting.
Robert Olson Farms Inc. near Hawley, Minn., is bucking that long-held belief by practicing no-till on all of its 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat, and by adding cover crops to the family’s management routine.
“We’re trying to build healthier soils while reducing money spent on labor and fuel,” says Kari Olson, who farms with her dad, Robert S. “Rob” Olson.
Kari, representing the fourth generation on the farm, offers a calendar overview of how the Olsons manage to keep their ground covered year-round. With planting around the corner, we’ll start here.
Spring wheat is seeded first in April and early May, followed by corn and then soybeans. The Olsons use a 40-foot, N540F no-till drill to seed both the wheat and soybeans. They like using the drill for its solid seeding capability and ease of use.
4TH GENERATION: The Olson sisters — Nicole Strafelda, Stacie Hinrichs and Kari Olson — are the fourth generation on their family’s Hawley cash crop farm. Kari farms with her dad, Rob Olson. Nicole and Stacie return home to help when needed.
“Planting soybeans into tough corn residue detaches hoses and plugs scrapers on the planter,” Kari says. “Our planter just isn’t set up for no-till. We get better results with the drill.”
Wheat and beans are planted on 10-inch spacing, so the Olsons can fertilize on the 20-inch mid-bander rank of the drill — an important feature for placing fertilizer between cash crop seed rows.
“Coincidentally, the mid-banders line up with our corn rows, allowing us to plant cover crops directly over that row which we call a bio-strip,” Kari says, adding, “I think the only thing this machine can’t do for us is provide singulation for planting corn. That would be the ticket.”
The Olsons deliver fertilizer with a JD 1910 air cart and disk it into the soil. They plant corn with a JD 1790 24-row planter on 20-inch spacing. The unit also has its own liquid fertilizer system.
Sidedressing, sowing cover crops
When corn is in the V4 to V6 stage around early June or so, depending on the planting date, the Olsons sidedress the crop with 28% nitrogen, using a 24-row sidedress bar. In 2018, they mounted a Gandy box on the sidedress bar and fill it with cover crop seed mix. Broadcasting seed at this time saves a second trip across the field.
The Olsons have noticed a change in weed species on their land, since they have practiced no-till for 18 years.
“Our weed spectrum has shifted, and we see more annuals than perennials and biennials,” Kari says. Dandelions, marestail, lambsquarters and common ragweed pop up now. They rely on Centrol Crop Consulting, based in Twin Valley, to scout and provide recommendations to spray herbicides, fungicides and insecticides when needed.
Here’s where the Olsons deviate from other practices in the neighborhood. When harvesting wheat, they use a Shelborne Reynolds XCV 42 stripper head that takes off the heads, but leaves the stalks standing.
“Dad preached ‘Keep the stalk there, it’s got a lot of value to it,’” Kari says, and she follows that advice. She likes to see standing residue since it allows corn seed to be planted directly into black soil the following spring.” Plus, using a stripper head, she can drive 1 to 2 mph faster and work longer hours to harvest wheat, with less concern about humid nights impacting harvest.
For corn harvest, the Olsons use a non-chopping corn head so again, stalks remain standing. They also take care to only fill grain carts half-full to reduce soil compaction.
Farming roots for the three Olson sisters — Kari, Nicole and Stacie — go deep. Their maternal great-great-grandparents homesteaded in Rollag in 1872. Simon and Ragnild Thompson lived in a dugout for a year and a half after arriving from Norway before they homesteaded. Their paternal great-grandparents Thorval and Alice Olson bought the farm in Hawley in the 1930s. Their grandfather Robert T. Olson then bought the current home farm 1 mile from his parents in the 1960s. Their dad, Robert S. Olson, bought his own land in the early 1980s. He formed the current corporation with Robert T. before buying him out in 2000. Kari purchased her first acreage in 2019.
“It was kinda cool that when Dad wanted to buy land, his grandpa gave him the down payment. And then my grandpa helped me out with my land purchase,” Kari says. “You really can’t get into farming without the people before you [providing support.]”
When it began
As a young farmer decades ago, Robert S. used to question Robert T. about what they were doing and why — the same as in any father-son business relationship.
“My dad remembers arguing over the perfect seedbed for soybeans following corn,” Kari, says. “They had tried moldboard and chisel plowing, disking or field cultivators, and felt the soil was getting worse.”
Nearly two decades ago, Robert S. started experimenting with no-till on some lighter soybean ground to see how it would work. He liked seeing comparable yields and a desirable seedbed, and added the no-till practice to heavier soybean ground.
A decade ago, he started no-till wheat. A low-interest loan from the Natural Resource Conservation Service helped him buy his first no-till drill. The Olsons use that for both wheat and soybeans.
Robert S tried strip-tilling corn but found it required more labor than he had at the time. So, six years ago, he decided to go 100% no-till on all ground, and he eventually sold the whole line of conventional tillage equipment.
“I started farming in 2016, so no-till is normal for me,” Kari adds.
Cover crop creep
Fertility management was the reason Robert S. started sowing cover crops seven years ago. The Olsons rely on a custom manure applicator who injects local hog manure on about a quarter of their land annually. The family needed a way to prevent leaching and hold nutrients in the soil. They started sowing a mix of radish and oats in early August postharvest, along with manure injection. This practice then evolved into planting bio-strips — using specific plants in rows that line up with proceeding corn rows, to mimic the job of metal on a strip-till machine.
“This is what we would call a natural strip till,” Kari says. “Plants do the work to warm up no-till strips for corn the next year.” They use radish and flax in bio-strips. The radish helps break up the soil, and the flax pulls up nutrients.
She likes to experiment with other types of cover crops and application methods. The Olsons have learned they need to get cover crop seed into the ground by Aug. 20, so plants have time to get established and do their job. When cover crops are added during corn sidedress, they’ll broadcast cereal rye and radish. The following spring, they’ll drill soybeans into living rye and then terminate the rye after planting.
They tried flying on cover crops into soybeans in 2020, when leaves started turning. Conditions were perfect that year, with timely rains, and the cover crop took off.
“Later, when Dad started combining, he was freaking out because it was green everywhere — and he thought we forgot to spray,” Kari recalls, chuckling. “No, it was the oats and radishes. As we were harvesting, it smelled as though we were out mowing the lawn.”
The Olsons’ open-mindedness to try different practices has made an impression on their local machinery dealership. Dave Gratton with RDO Equipment Co., Hawley, has worked with the Olsons for about a decade.
“They are not afraid to try something new,” Gratton says. First, they do their research on a practice or piece of equipment, then they ask a lot of questions, and then they try it on a small scale and then ramp up if they see results, he explains.
“They are very technology-savvy,” Gratton adds. “Kari and Nicole are on top of it all the time. I’m very proud of them.”
With the weight of the family farming legacy on her shoulders, Kari naturally looks ahead and carefully considers every land practice. Like those before her, leaving the soil in better health and condition than when she started is the goal. She has a 3-year-old niece who plays and talks about running the combine. She knows firsthand that is a distinct possibility.
Both no-till and cover crops are impacting soil health and their bottom line in positive ways. There’s less labor, fuel and equipment needed.
“2019 was so wet,” Kari adds. “We saw a huge improvement in water infiltration and trafficabilty. Our ground has been so forgiving and consistent.”
The drought of 2021 made it a tough year overall. Crops held on longer, especially corn, as there was a slight reservoir of water in the soil, she notes. Yet, corn and soybean yields were down.
“If there’s one lesson I’ve learned in my first five years of farming,” Kari says, it’s you cannot beat Mother Nature — so you best find ways to work with her.”
See a YouTube video made by RDO Equipment, featuring Kari Olson and sister Nicole Strafelda and their no-till story, at youtube.com/watch?v=sbCLoE9tqyc.