Tim Dritz didn’t hesitate to drive 350 miles from his western Minnesota farm for a day and a half August meeting in Waterloo, Iowa. Neither did Charlie Hammer from Beaver Dam, Wisc., whose drive was about 250 miles one-way. The veteran strip-tillers didn’t mind because they were going to a peer meeting they valued – in meetings and online. They met on an invitation-only Facebook page dedicated to strip-till, which quickly branched out to technologic ways to boost agronomic efficiency, says Loran Steinlage, one of the group’s early members. “Some of us had known one other for a long time; we made a Facebook page, and it grew from there, he says.
Dritz and Hammer are part of an online group of 25 who met near Waterloo for a summer event. Some had met last January at Loran Steinlage’s farm near West Union, Iowa. The group’s common theme is freely sharing ideas to advance their agronomic and operational strategies, says another group member, Jacob Bolson. He helps manage a family farm and works full-time off the farm, put the program together and helped organize the summer event. “Cropping and equipment systems are also points of conversation,” he adds.
On the agenda this time: four hours of give and take from cover-crop expert Joel Gruver of Western Illinois University; a morning of firsthand information on strip intercropping; row-by-row and plant-by-plant yield analysis from Cedar Valley Innovation owner and veteran agricultural engineer Bob Recker, Waterloo, Iowa; and an afternoon visit to Clay and Wade Mitchell’s farm near Buckingham, Iowa, to learn more about controlled traffic, strip-till and nutrient banding.
Share pros and cons
Dritz is a 12-year strip-till veteran who tried cover crops last year but wanted to learn what did and didn’t work from other group corn and soybean farmers, and from Gruver’s experience. “You pick up a lot here that you can’t get at farm shows,” Dritz says.
Hammer, a corn, soybean and wheat grower, helped organize the summer event after he saw the benefits of information exchange at the Steinlage farm. “Loran started the network and invited me,” Hammer says. “We knew each other through Ag Talk (http://bit.ly/13ac83S). I was looking for some group advice on cover crops and controlled traffic.”
Some of that advice came from Clay Mitchell, an early adopter Iowa farmer with a Harvard degree in biomedical engineering. “Our Achilles heel in controlled traffic is rutting in the tracks,” he says.
“You’re tempted to till them, but you shouldn’t. As soon as you do that, even for one year, you destroy aggregate soil stability,” Mitchell says. “We haven’t seen negative yield impacts on crops next to the traffic path. We’ve used drags and built machines that smooth out the ruts, but the best thing is to stay away from really skinny tires, and stay off wet soils to avoid ruts in the first place.”
After his presentation, Mitchell fielded questions on topics ranging from farmland-buying strategies to breaking weed-resistance cycles to fertilizer placement. He and his father Wade have incorporated ideas into their operation from farmers around the world. “When I meet a farmer from France or Australia, I can see in their eyes we have something in common,” Mitchell says.
“In no other industry is there as little change based on price for the product as there is for the farmer. We have to innovate to survive high and low prices. The harder it is to farm a piece of ground, the more management matters. I see resilience in this group.”
Group member Bob Recker isn’t a farmer. He spent 41 years as a product engineer for John Deere before retiring five years ago to start Cedar Valley Innovation, an aerial crop-scouting and interpretation business. “If I see variation from the air, you’ll see it on a yield map,” Recker says.
He’s also fascinated with single-plant growth and yield. He measures the grain from each plant and calculates the single plant yield based on the space that the plant occupies. He believes that understanding plant variability and its causes can lead to improved yield for the whole field.
“A quality conversation has direct economic value,” Bolson says. “You can’t replicate what you learn firsthand. It becomes part of your decision-making without you knowing it.
“I knew Bob, Clay and Wade had things to say that other farmers in the group should hear. There’s a lot of interest in cover crops; I knew Joel and others also wanted the interaction we could have with him one on one,” Bolson says. “For me, this meeting was another chance to pick up on segments of the conversation to see what we can do better on our family farm.”
The next meeting will probably be this winter.
Strip-till brought us together
“A common interest in strip-till is what brought us together,” says Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, who organized a group of farmers and ag specialist who communicate regularly virtually and sometimes in person.
“But we’re interested in a broader picture. We ‘talk’ about a lot of agronomy issues. A handful of us go way back, more than 15 years, in bouncing ideas off each other. Two years ago we probably had 20 to 30 people on an email group.”
But emailing wasn’t efficient, Steinlage says, so the group moved to a Facebook page. “Most of us are from Ag Talk. But that’s a big group. We have things we want to share with each other, but not so publicly,” Steinlage adds. Members call, text, and email each other as well as use the Facebook page. The group has now grown to about 100 members, ranging as far as California, Washington, Texas and North Carolina.
“I’m involved in some other farm groups, but this one is focused on agronomy and business,” Steinlage says. “I probably call more people outside the state of Iowa than inside. If we travel across the country, I’m going to stop in and see some of them, too. You just have a wealth of experience at your fingertips with this group—experience you can’t find locally.”
“What’s a little unique here is we have biotechnology, organic farming, small-grain farmers, crop advisors, custom applicators, industry reps and others in the group. Everyone respects everyone else, and takes time to learn from everyone else. I like the diversity,” says group member Jacob Bolson.
New members have to be invited by a current member and approved by Steinlage. “We’re concerned about the group getting too large,” he says. “We want to know who’s in the group, know we can trust what they say. The openness and confidentiality of this group is important.”
The trust the members have in each other was what brought Jeff Reints of Shell Rock, Iowa to his first meeting with the group. He was invited by a farm-equipment rep. “They’re strip-tillers, they were going to talk about cover crops, and I wanted to meet them,” Reints says.
There are no group officers or dues. At meetings, the costs are added up and the hat is passed for donations before everyone goes home.
“I’m a ‘better mousetrap’ kind of guy,” Steinlage says. “I’m still evolving, watching some of the Minnesota farmers, because they’re in colder soils, like me. But I’ve also learned a lot from the Delta (South) farmers, too, and other folks from coast to coast. My dad set me up to learn. This is what drives me, learning firsthand. I like to learn and I like to help others learn.”