3 farmers share why they switched tillage practices

Farm Progress Soybeans planted into corn crop residue.
WILLING TO TRY: Farmers are increasingly looking for better ways to improve their soil and their bottom line. For many, that means planting soybeans into corn crop residue.
Don’t let fear stop you from trying new crop management practices on your farm, they say.

Farming practices get entrenched in an operation, as farmers simply build on what was done by their fathers, grandfathers and beyond. Changing those practices and ways of thinking can be a big first step to a new beginning.

Three North Dakota farmers shared the “why” behind their practices and tips for other producers during the Dakota Innovation Research and Technology Workshop, a virtual event hosted by the North Dakota State University Extension.

‘There’s got to be a better way’

Steve Schuster farms near the Minto area, about 30 miles north of Grand Forks, where he raises seven different crops. Last spring, he converted the operation in the “dark, rich, heavy clay soils in the heart of the [Red River] valley” to strip tillage.

With clay soils, Schuster worried about compaction. “So, I looked at going across the fields one, two, three times in the spring and then tried to seed crops into heavy wheel tracks,” he says. The farm had not been getting the productivity expected from the land, and large fertilizer bills piled up no matter the yields. Schuster knew something had to be done.

“I looked at my cropping system and looked at my operation, where I want to be in the future, and just said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

He found the Next Level, a program by Randy Dowdy and David Hula, two farmers known for producing high-yielding crops in Georgia and Virginia, respectively. Through Next Level, Schuster was introduced to SoilWarrior tillage, and thought, “No time like the present to jump in and try something.”

Strip-tilling ahead of sunflowers for the 2020 crop was Schuster’s first dip into trying something different. Looking ahead to spring 2021, he has strips built for sugarbeets, soybeans, corn and edible beans. “This is where you start to think outside the box,” Schuster says. “I might even seed some wheat in 22-inch rows with my planter just to learn something.”

Minimum-till and no-till

Farming just outside of the Red River Valley near Larimore, Sam Landman combines minimum-till and no-till on the rolling hills of his family’s operation, where they grow wheat, barley, edible beans, corn and soybeans.

“We have hills that dry out, and then we also have some low areas that are problems in the spring as we’re trying to get crop in the ground,” he says. “That’s what landed me on the high-speed disk, just doing some spot tillage mostly.”

Landman also did some comparisons where he would make a tillage strip with a high-speed disc in the middle of a no-till field, or a no-till strip in the middle of a tilled field. He found no performance differences if moisture conditions were favorable at seeding time. But there is a difference if it’s wet in the spring, he says, as the advantage usually goes to the tillage areas.

In the fall, Landman will leave fields covered with residue, except for doing some spot tillage to take care of some problem areas or to level out ruts “to make it as easy for us as possible in the spring.”

Crop residue issues

Lee Trautman only knows the no-till way of life. “I don’t know tillage,” the Jamestown-area farmer says. He’s never tilled an entire field.

Farming with his dad and brother, Trautman incorporated cover crops about 10 years ago in the wheat, soybeans, rye and corn rotation. The Trautmans manage the operation with limited equipment — a sprayer, a tractor, a planter, Quadtrac and drill.

However, Trautman admits the farm has a problem with the buildup of wheat residue when dropping straw. He says it affects yield, as well as the next crop’s stand. So, he is trying to find a way to incorporate that chaff behind the combine better.

After prodding from equipment dealers, Trautman tried three different pieces of tillage equipment. He notes the machines performed “all right,” but the expense of the equipment was difficult to justify for the farm operation. Still, the south-central North Dakota farmer is open to machinery or methods that may help solve a problem.

Don’t be afraid to try new things

One of the biggest things holding producers back from changing tillage practices is fear of trying new things.

“I try different things weekly it seems like,” Trautman says. “Just a random idea pops in your head, find a way to put it into a small-scale test. I’m going to go out later today and put some soybean seed and corn seeds in the ground and see what happens. It doesn’t have to be huge; it doesn’t have to even be field size. I’m just going to go dig a hole with my hand and see what happens. You never know. And sometimes, great ideas come from places you never would have imagined.”

Before a producer thinks about moving a reduced tillage system, Landman recommends starting with field drainage.

“Start improving your field drainage or surface drainage,” he says. “The faster you can get that water moving off the field in the spring, the faster you can get into it. It just helps tremendously in a no-till environment.”

Landman adds that it’s important to ignore the “perceived” issues and rely on what you know is actually happening on your farm. “Sometimes there’s a perceived compaction issue due to the ground firming up, but that’s benefited me because of increased traffic ability. The benefits from the increase in moisture holding capacity trumps any perceived issues from compaction that you may have in your field.”

Schuster advises producers to be aware that one solution may cause another problem. As he looks at profitability and controlling risk on his farm, he has learned to analyze the year that Mother Nature offers and then adapt along the way.

“One of the challenges that we’ve found in strip-till is we start wheat harvest here in early August, and we can’t start putting down nitrogen in August, so we went to some more split applications and had an investment on the planter and side-dress equipment,” he says. “We had to put guidance on the planter. Things like that, it just created another headache sometimes, so it’s hard to think forward that far to see what those problems are going to be. You’re going to have to look through those but just don’t be afraid to test things.”

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