Iowa farmers Roger Zylstra and Mark Heckman have been using 4R Plus practices, such as no-till and cover crops, for several years and have seen improvements to soil health that provide benefits throughout the growing season.
No-till has improved soil structure even on Zylstra’s more challenging acres. “I wish I had more years of using cover crops during my farming career. Since adding that practice, I see the additional soil health benefits,” he says. “This year, the 4R Plus practices I use allowed me to push the front end of the planting window in what turned out to be a very wet spring.”
Farming in Jasper County in central Iowa, Zylstra wrapped up corn planting on May 6, and then it rained the next five weeks. Through his farming career, he has learned that drainage is one of the keys to building yields. “This year, well-drained fields look pretty good in this area,” he notes. “We will never be successful raising a good crop, building soil health, managing nutrient flows and controlling erosion if we don’t have proper drainage.”
Cover crop provides advantages
Heckman farms in Muscatine County in eastern Iowa. This year, his spring planting window extended from May 6 to June 7, which provided time for robust cover crop establishment to suppress weeds and support machinery. His ground is more forgiving because of the no-till and cover crop system that has been in place for several years.
“The way it turned out, the corn with the best yield potential was planted toward the middle of the planting window,” he says.
While Heckman Farms was able to stick with its corn and soybean rotation, not all the intended acres were planted. The prevented planting provision for crop insurance was filed on 107 acres. “Without no-till and cover crops, I have no doubt we would have more prevented planting acres this year,” he says.
Heckman planted a cover crop combination of rye and radishes on the prevented planting acres to suppress weeds and retain nutrients. “We have a unique opportunity to improve soil health with cover crops,” he says. “Keeping a living root in the soil feeds the microbes.”
Benefits of improving soil health
Despite less-than-desirable planting and growing conditions, both farmers are optimistic about yield potential. While Zylstra says the last 200 acres of corn he planted will lower the yield average, he expects his overall yields to be 85% to 95% of trend. Heckman expects corn yields to be around 82% of Actual Production History and soybean yields closer to 90%.
Zylstra says improving soil health and structure can be a long process, but the benefits are worth the wait and are valuable during a challenging growing season. “We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made,” he says. “Given all that Mother Nature has thrown at this 2019 crop, we’re thankful for the crop potential that’s out there.”
Heckman adds, “Moving away from traditional tillage takes a mindset and a realization you won’t see changes overnight. It takes time to change and improve the structure of the soil. Thankfully, we are reaping the benefits from the conservation practices we have on the farm.”
For more information, visit 4rplus.org.