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Systems mindset is key to no-till and strip-till success for Iowa farmer

Article cover photo
Tom Oswald has been using various conservation tillage practices since 1984 and has witnessed improvements in his soil without sacrificing yield. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Bethany Baratta, ISA senior writer

Adopting strip-till or no-till practices is a long-term systems approach which can provide a multitude of benefits including improved soil health, soil conservation, water management, and profitability. But it takes an “all in” attitude and a commitment to continuous improvement and making it work.

Take it from Tom Oswald, who is in the middle of planting his 20th soybean crop in a no-till system on his farm near Cleghorn.

“Planting directly into corn stalks is the only way I plant soybeans,” says Oswald, a past president of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) and a current director on the United Soybean Board.

But it wasn’t always that way, he says. Especially considering his ancestors who settled in northwest Iowa in 1870.

“Looking back over time, the plow was a symbol and a tool of progress. It was a form of agricultural work ethic creating wealth and prosperity from tilling the land,” he said. “For some farmers, farming means “tilling the land,” and you can’t unhook the two.”

And for some farmers, admittedly, it still does. But Oswald has a different mindset. His master’s degree in soil management and weed control from Iowa State University provided opportunities to research and test strip-till and no-till systems. He first tried planting his corn crop into soybean stubble in 1984, and fully transitioned to strip-tilling corn in the 1990s. He began no-tilling soybeans in 2000.

Through these various methods of reduced tillage, he’s seen the improvements in his soil without sacrificing yield. His budget sheets reflect savings in time, labor costs, fuel and other inputs.

This success came after years of trials, a commitment to continuous improvement, and a mindset different from those in a full-width tillage system.

“I look at no-till from an evaluating mindset,” Oswald says. “It’s less about the practice and more about the mindset to find success.”

A commitment to sustaining the no-till practice is critical in maximizing the benefits associated with a no-till system, says Scott Nelson, director of agronomy at ISA’s Research Center for Farming Innovation.

“It doesn’t have to be more complicated management, but it does have to be different,” Nelson says.

He says no-till requires a systems approach, considering all aspects of planting, integrated fertility, weed, disease and insect pest management, controlled traffic harvesting equipment and crop production management processes.

“I see farmers trying it but not changing their management and giving up,” Nelson says. “There has to be an awareness that you’re doing things differently, and that requires a change in management.”

No-till and strip-till planters are well-engineered to accomplish optimum seed placement, but the right equipment must be utilized and it must be properly adjusted.

Oswald says seed placement in a good seed bed is essential; seeds lying on the soil surface or not planted correctly will not germinate and thrive. Residue cleaners, row sweeps, no-till coulters and similar attachments on planters are essential and help when excessive chopped residue remains, Nelson adds.

Down-pressure must be carefully adjusted on planter units as no-till residue tends to resist soil penetration. A recent advance in planting technology is variable downforce pressure. This technology has been shown to provide an advantage in heavy residue conditions but is not necessary if downforce pressure is carefully managed.

Farmers should also plant between last year’s rows, making every attempt to avoid knocking down last year’s cut corn stalks if possible.

When determining how you can incorporate a reduced tillage system on your farm, Oswald suggests talking to other farmers who have experience with no-till and work with Nelson and others within ISA’s Research Center for Farming Innovation.

Oswald recognizes the hesitancy among farmers in committing to a system that may be new to them. But after seeing the improvements in his soil health and recognizing those other benefits, he hasn’t looked back.

“I cannot conceive spending more hours of my life on a tractor going back and forth, moving soil back and forth,” Oswald says. “For me, that’s not a part of a good life anymore.”

Contact Bethany Baratta at bbaratta@iasoybeans.com.

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For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjames@iasoybeans.com. © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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