Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Strip tilling, cover crops and Soil Health Field Day

I look at my kids daily and often my mind wonders about who they will be when they are grown. Who they will be, what they will do with their life. I had the good fortune of growing up on a family farm, as did Bryan. So when I look at my kids, I wonder...will they want to continue farming? How might farming look 10-15 years down the road given the changes that have already happened in the past 10 years and all that could be, given research and technology, in the years to come. Part of a family farm is working, building and even preserving something for the next generation. There comes  a time when the reins are handed over, and even though change is uncertain and maybe uncomfortable, change is good. It helps us grow and we almost always wonder "Why didn't we do this sooner?" So what if Wesley, or even Aubrey or Alaina, wants to take over the reins from us some day? We feel an obligation to grow, learn, change and adapt and do the best we can, with information we have, to make sure there is something here for them to come back to, take over and let them take the reins, if they so choose. How do we feel we can best be sustainable for future generations?

About 4 or 5 years ago, Bryan started looking into some different options of managing the soil on the ground we farm. After a few heavy rains in short periods of time, the water erosion we were seeing in our fields was a little disheartening. And seeing drifts of black dirt in the snow from wind in the winter was hard to see too. We knew we wanted to do something different. After lots (and lots and lots) or reading and research, he landed on strip tilling and vertical tillage. Not long after making the switch, he also decided to add the use of cover crops to the mix.

Some of you may know what strip tilling is, some may not. Just as the name implies, we use a strip till bar to till strips into our fields, instead of doing full field tillage. There are numerous advantages to this change we have made.

  • Reduced soil erosion - Disturbing less of the soil and leaving some of the residue from the previous crop in the field leaves our valuable top soil less susceptible to wind and water erosion. The times we do get those rains or super windy days, we don't have lots of loose top soil to wash or blow away. 
    Field on the right side of the picture with conventional tillage - our field on the left. You can see the washing of the soil to the right of the grass strip - there is a large gully washed out. You can see some debris washed away on the left, but our soil stayed intact very well. This was a 4" rain in spring of 2015.
  • Restoring natural soil structure - strip tilling allows our fields to start re-establising more of a natural soil structure which in turn helps immensely with our water infiltration - the rate at which the soil can absorb water from rainfall or irrigation. The more you leave soil alone, the better the water channels in the soil will be - aided by an increased population of earthworms. When you till an entire field you make the soil almost like powder....and what happens when you mix water with a powder? Think cement. So when it rains, the dirt has a tendency to crust over and greatly slow the soil's absorption of water. So when we restore that structure, our fields tend to absorb water better - which allows our fields to dry out faster after heavy rains. 
    Good soil structure should be quite coarse and chunky - think more like coffee ground instead of real fine and powdery. You can see in some of the larger chunks lots of holes from earthworms also. That's a great sign! 
  • Lower input costs - just tilling a strip to prepare a seed bed allows us to save on fertilizer costs. We apply these inputs only in the strip where the seed will be planted. It allows the seed greater access to those nutrients and allows us to use less since we are applying to such a specific area and not across an entire field. We make more efficient trips across the field which saves on machinery wear and tear and fuel. 
    This is planting corn right into the strips we made last fall. Can still see bean stubble left in the field.
  • Build organic matter - leaving more of the residue from the previous crop in the field allows the soil to break down that residue and helps build organic matter and nutrients in the soil for crops in years following.  
    Strips are harder to see in field where we are planting beans into corn stalks. Easier to see at the bottom of the picture. But there is a lot of residue that protects our soil and eventually goes back into our soil.

Along with adding strip tilling, we have also incorporated cover cropping into our operation. This summer we purchased a highboy Hagie sprayer to use for spraying, but then can be converted to apply cover crops with a Gandy box and lots of tubing and engineering! We also use it to do custom work for other farmers in the area. So far, in our use of cover crops, we generally plant these in later summer - around mid August - September - into standing crops of corn and beans. Some of the great benefits of cover crops are:

  • Again...erosion control. Since the cover crops grow in the fall and stay in place over the winter, they do a wonderful job of keeping soil in it's place with the strong, harsh winter winds we get - on ground that isn't covered by snow. 
  • Helps build organic matter - when you have a nice establishment of cover crops you have all kinds of roots and other plant material that stays in your soil and is broken down for the benefit of future crops. 
  • Scavenge nutrients - cover crops in the field uptake many nutrients that are in the soil and keep them there instead of possibly leaching away with snow thaw or first spring rains. When the cover crops die, the plant goes back into the soil and those nutrients are available to growing crops. 
  • Break up compaction - there are different blends of cover crops that can help achieve a little different results. Some mixes can help break up soil compaction from machinery passes through the fields. Helps with compaction when you don't want to do tillage. 
Crop crops in our end rows that will stay through winter to help control wind erosion.

Last winter, Bryan stumbled across an initiative through National Corn Growers Association called Soil Health Partnership. It's a study to collect data on how some of these different practices affect our soils and crops from year to year.  Along with cooperating on data collection, one requirement was that he do a field day. Bryan had planned to try to do a field day with a local business that sells strip till units for doing demos of some assembled machines. We were lucky enough to be able to combine the two and have a morning of presentations, lunch and then some demos in the afternoon. It was a great day with a bigger crowd than expected! Great to see such interest in some of these conservation methods.

Had the Hagie out.

Different strip till bars were there for attendants to check out.

Strip til demo

This just touches some of the main reasons and the advantages we've seen from the switch. There has been much research, time and thought that has gone into this change. It's a tad scary to think about investing a lot of money into the equipment and totally changing the management style. But no one system is 100% correct, but we keep learning and adjusting what we do as we go. We make mistakes and we have some great successes. But just like any situation in life, change is good. You try to make a plan and even though we might have some questions and aren't totally sure of every step of the path, we know we will just make the best of it and keep moving forward and trying to improve. Change is what makes us grow, learn and experience. And we've found all these changes to be a wonderful thing. Ones that we hope will help sustain our soils and fields for the next generation and beyond....just in case one of these little farmers takes an interest! :)

1 comment:

  1. Lauren; It is so wonderful you are promoting farming in such a positive way! Keep up the good work?