“Part of the problem with the lack of knowledge about acidity is the historic practice of composite soil sampling.”
— Dave Franzen, Soil Specialist, North Dakota State University Extension
In this episode of the No-Till Farmer Influencers & Innovators podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, North Dakota State University Extension soil specialist Dave Franzen shares his unconventional trajectory into the world of agriculture and why he thinks no-till is so critical for improving soil health.
Franzen is a proponent of encouraging others to try no-till and strip-till, particularly emphasizing soil-saving potential of the practices and providing educational programs on soil to farmers, extension agents and specialists, industry professionals and the general public.
If you are interested in more no-till history, you’ll find great stories like these and many more in the newly released 448-page second edition of From Maverick to Mainstream: A History of No-Till Farming that includes 32 more pages than the first edition. Order your copy here.
No-Till Influencers & Innovators podcast series is brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer.
Keep your nitrogen where it is most effective, in the soil, and available for plant uptake with liquid thiosulfate fertilizers by Crop Vitality. Recent studies have shown, Thio-Sul and KTS inhibit nitrogen losses to the atmosphere and waterways while providing essential nutrients including sulfur so your crops have what they need when they need it most. Visit Crop Vitality dot com for a deeper dive into nitrification inhibition and the benefits of all Crop Vitality's fertilizers.
Welcome to the No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators Podcast, brought to you by Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul, the original thiosulfate liquid fertilizer. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor of No-Till Farmer. In this episode of the podcast, soil specialist at North Dakota State University Extension, Dave Franzen shares his unconventional trajectory into the world of agriculture and why he thinks no-till is so critical for improving soil health. Plus, find out about some of the unique ways that Franzen has been educating others on all the many benefits of no-till farming.Dave Franzen:
I didn't grow up on a farm. I had an uncle on the farm, but everybody had an uncle on the farm back then. And I really didn't get interested at all in soils until I got down to the University of Illinois and decided I didn't want to wear a lab coat in chemistry all my life and went into a program where I could think about what I needed to do, the forestry program at Illinois at that time. And so anyway, one of the required courses was Agronomy 101, and as part of it was a soil section and I got down to the pit and there was physics and there was chemistry and there was biology and there was math, and there was everything all in this one little space and I had thought to myself this is it.
So I took every soil course I could get my hands on and then I started working for Fred Welch, doing soil fertility at Illinois my senior year to make some money to get through the last year, and he offered me a master's and I took it. Graduated and then ended up as agronomist for a string of independent fertilizer retail chains in the central part of the state, and very soon I was in management and worked there for about 18 years. Got my PhD the last four years. Worked out a deal with my boss and I worked 40 hours and I got my PhD and did all my research at night, weekends, whatever, and finished that up and it was clear that he was going to sell the place. And so in '94, I applied for the extension soil specialist position at NDSU that had just come up for rehiring and they put me in. So I've been here since June 13, 1994.Frank Lessiter:
So I didn't realize you had this independent 18 months or so. I take it you're an Illinois native. Where'd you grow up?Dave Franzen:
I grew up outside of Chicago. If you watched the beginning scene of The Sting in Joliet, where the bum is sitting there with the empty wine glass or whatever, and then one of the opening scenes of the Blues Brothers with the notorious Stateville Prison, which is a really horrible place with really horrible people in it. That was my background. I was born in Joliet and then raised in New Lenox, which is about six miles outside of town. And when I left it in 1971, it had 700 people and now it has probably close to 40,000.Frank Lessiter:
Wow. Well, I'm lucky. I've never had to visit the state prison in Illinois or any state prison, so I've been doing okay.Dave Franzen:
I don't want to go anywhere closer to it. Dad used to drive by to go to what we call the used bread place, the discount-Frank Lessiter:
Day old bread.Dave Franzen:
... bread place.Frank Lessiter:
Well, when you went to North Dakota, you got an interest quite quickly in no-till, didn't you?Dave Franzen:
I did. In Illinois it was kind of an afterthought and one of those pesky things. In Illinois, we provided anhydrous toolbars to our customers and hardly anybody had their own, very different than up here. And toward the last, the farmers were letting us know that if we didn't put coulters and disc covers and that kind of stuff on our toolbars, then they would go someplace else that did. So we did, and people really weren't no-till as we consider it, but they would go into the bean stubble and put their ammonia on and they'd just plant their corn right into it. And almost all the time, with very few exceptions, they would work the ground before they planted the beans. But up here it's very different, and I learned that very, very quickly when I came up here.Frank Lessiter:
So tell me what you've been doing, what your research, your extension work is really zeroed in on regards to no-till over the past 30 years or so.Dave Franzen:
Well, there's two remarkable things, and one of it is farmer driven. So when I came up here and saw the no-till, it was very surprising to me and I understood that it was probably more moisture-related, but as I went on, I learned it was deeper than that. And I was invited to speak at I think the 1995 Manitoba North Dakota Zero-Till conference, which is held in Minot. And I remember it because it was the coldest day I'd ever woken up in North Dakota up to that point and since. I woke up the next morning, it was 45 below and that wasn't wind chill, that was really temperature. And I had to drive 200 miles or something like that to get down to the southwest part of the state and I thought they're not going to be a soul there, but the was place was packed and people just let their pickups run all day. It was a great meeting.
But anyway, the night before was important because they invited me up to the second floor for an after event and a lot of the original no-till people were there, and so I was just soaking this stuff up like a sponge. And one of the things they told me was that they didn't follow NDSU, North Dakota State recommendations for nitrogen anymore. They found that after they've been in no-till for a while, and some have been no-till for 20 years, that they could reduce their nitrogen rate. And they reduced it to the point where they didn't even pay attention to what our recommendations were, they just did what they thought was. So I remembered that, and then in 2010-ish, I had accumulated well over 100 site years of end rate data all across the state from all corners. And so before I put a pen to the recommendations, I thought well, I wonder if they're right.
So I divided it into long-term no-till and sites that were conventional till, and they were right. It took about 50 pounds less nitrogen to get at least the same yields and at least the same protein on spring wheat and durum as it did in conventional sites in the neighborhood, so that was eye-opening. So that's the first, and as far as I know, it's the only nitrogen credit for long-term no-till I know of anywhere. Not sure why, I just know that we did it. And then when I put out lots and lots of nitrogen rate trials for corn, I deliberately put sites in and conventional till and again, same thing.
And I did the same thing then when I moved on to sunflowers, and again the same thing, and just recently with two row of malting barley. I know the industry has kind of moved to that, and our recommendations were thin. So again, I've had long-term no-till sites and I had a traditional or transitional site that was just turning in the no-till and they were right again. So it's a thing, so that was huge. So that's what I learned, and I got the idea from farmers. If they hadn't have said anything, if I hadn't have been invited up to that second floor, I'm not sure anybody ever mentioned it to me again, but I remembered it. I kept it in my back pocket and when I had the data, I tested it out.Frank Lessiter:
Now I see one of those pioneers from those days just passed away recently, Luther Berntson.Dave Franzen:
I just saw that on Facebook. There was a picture of him and Joe Breker, who's a good friend, and I worked on his farms. You always need those kinds of people.Frank Lessiter:
And we've had Joe Breker several times as a speaker at our National No-Tillage Conference, and Luther, I remember talking to him and my God, he was still skiing when he was 85 years old. I think that was one of his-Dave Franzen:
I can't do that. I paid too much money for my new hip, so I don't want to screw that up again.Frank Lessiter:
There you go. You mentioned Minot, and I was up there to one of the Manitoba North Dakota meetings and I know how cold it was. And then a few years later, we sent one of our other editors up there and she had difficulty getting into her room it was so cold, making the key work. And she actually ended up with frost bitten fingers when she got back home. I know how cold-Dave Franzen:
That's horrible.Frank Lessiter:
But she talked about the pickup trucks being left on and running all night long. So what else? You're a real soils guy. We've got other people that are agronomists and field crops guys, but you're a real soils guy. What have you learned about soils with no-till in North Dakota?Dave Franzen:
Well, I understand why they did it. And I don't know why this didn't hit me when I came here because my predecessor Carl Fanning, I don't know if he ever got to know him or not-Frank Lessiter:
Yes, I know who he is.Dave Franzen:
... he's still around. I think he's in his nineties and much more frail than he used to be, but he encouraged me on the soil conservation side. And of course, the late eighties were horrible up here, as they were in many places in the States and in Canada, and so he spent a lot of time talking about that. This is a weird story. So I got a call from the Governor's Historical Society in Bismarck and they wanted me to give a talk on the history of fertilizer use in North Dakota, and I just heard the word governor and I said yes. And I hung up the phone and said, "What the heck am I going to talk about for 45 minutes? I'm going to have this chart that shows NPK use from about 1950 until now, and what can I say about that?"
And then I started thinking I'd heard some stories about buffalo bones many years ago, back around the turn of the last century, and so I started investigating it and it was quite the business back then. We see the movies of the Old West and all this, and once in a while you see some kind of a skull or something by the side of the road. But apparently, according to accounts of farmers all over the state of North Dakota, they would start to plow and then they'd hit something and they'd have to stop and take the bone and throw it off to the side, and then they'd go for a little bit and they'd hit something. But these are all over the place. I think the common thought is that natives used every part of the buffalo. Well, they did, but they didn't use all the parts to all the buffalo. How many scapulas can a family really need over the course of a few years?
And so these bones are like everywhere. They're just everywhere. So people pick them up, and so I found some records of different places where they put them. And they were what, millions of tons, and it was quite the business. It was a business in the Central Plains for a while until it ran out, maybe a decade or so in Kansas and Nebraska, and then it moved up here and then it lasted several years. And if you go into the records of different towns, they have these centennial celebrations or so, which in North Dakota would be somewhere in the seventies, the eighties, somewhere in there that they would publish these things. And they would tell stories of it would be their only income to keep them through the winter or it would be their income that them buy enough timber in order to either put a floor on the house or actually build a house, so it was a big deal.
So I figured out how much phosphate fertilizer that would be, because bone meal is a typical organic phosphate or a fertilizer, and so it amounted about two years of phosphate application at about today's present rate. So I thought well, that's cool. That'll fill up 15 minutes. And then I started to think a little bit deeper and I thought well, I wonder how much soil we really lost and what was in it. So I started looking at that and the more I read, the more appalled I was. We hear about Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, never hear anything about North Dakota. I've been to what, a dozen town museums across the state, and there'll be pictures of wonderful harvest from that before 1929 or so, and then they'll show parades and stuff like that in the fifties, but then there's this big gap where nobody was taking any pictures.
It was so depressing. There's an area southwest of Fargo called the Cheyenne Grasslands, and every quarter section in that area, it used to be farmed before the thirties and it all blew away and all that left is sand dunes. And the government bought it up and it's just this grassland. They rent it out for a few bucks to put cows out, but it used to be profitably farmed many years ago. So that happened all the way across the state. We had two to three feet of 6 to 7.5% organic matter soil in many areas of the state, most of the state really, except for the very far west where it's so dry, but even at that, they had a foot and a half and most of that's all gone. And so the more I read, the more depressed I was.
But it was certainly clear to me why people out in Beach and Golva and why Joe Breker and others decided that if they didn't do something, there really wouldn't be anything left, because there really wouldn't be anything left. So that was a huge revelation, and I put together a presentation. In fact, I've got a voiceover version of it on my website that talks about the whole thing, about the history of phosphate export from North Dakota. And there is enough soil blown away and people analyzed it. I think they went out in New York City and they could take cup fulls of it and then have it analyzed, and it was far more phosphate, potash, organic matter, anything good in that soil that was blown away that was left behind in the prairies.
So I've used it as a shock troops when we're talking about why a person should change their tillage, and it's remarkable really how emotional some people get when I give that presentation. Some big burly guy come up here and almost give me a hug and have a hit of a tear in his eyes saying, "Thank you. I knew we were doing the right thing, but nobody really put words to it." And I think it's set the table for people to raise their eyebrows and say, "Well, maybe it's not all in the ditch after all," and starting to change their habits. So I think it's been important. Dr. Abbey Wick has been really important in getting the extension message out and work with farmers face-to-face and things to get people to change into a more conservation line, but I think that scholarly stuff I did just to find out how really horrible it was up here, I think that set the table for that, so we work together really well.Frank Lessiter:
We're down here in Wisconsin and kind of on the corn belt, but we don't have the wind erosion problems. Wind erosion can be pretty serious for you up there, isn't it?Dave Franzen:
It is. The whole great plains, whenever it gets dry. This winter hasn't been bad because the first snowfall was full of water and so everything's been sealed tight, but in many, many years, we've already had several dust storms through the winter. And a lot of farmers and landowners don't even know what's going on because they're in Arizona someplace and they don't see it, but the poor people that are left up here, they're having to stop sometimes before they go another foot because they can't see in front of them and because of all the dirt blowing around.Frank Lessiter:
Do you think no-till acreage is still growing or is it declining or is it flat in your area?Dave Franzen:
We had a great burst of activity, as I understand, back until about '91. There are many years in the state that aren't no-till now that were no-till then, and then in '92 it started getting really wet. It was just like the tap was turned off and then all of a sudden it was turned on. The big lake within the state other than Sakakawea, the damned Missouri, is the Devil's Lake area. And there was some writing about maybe it going dry after '89-90 during all that drought. And then all of a sudden the rains came, just double the rainfall in a year and all of a sudden the lake was up, everything was really, really wet. And so a couple years before I came, it started getting wet and then all through the nineties it was pretty nasty. And so people just got terrified that they wouldn't get in the field and get anything done, and so they started working the fields,
What they found out I think is that the fields were going to be wet, whether they were a no-till or not, but they were just terrified and didn't know what to do and they figured they'd do something, and so they tore it up. So now a lot of those fields are going back in there, but I think the thing I worry most about is that the generation of farmers that's all in no-till are about to give it up to somebody else, either retire, sell, something. And I just wonder if people from away come in, that they really understand the value of this and it's not that they're lazy, they actually did it for a reason, so there's a reason that has to be covered all the time. A person doesn't really realize how windy it is here unless you live up here for a little bit, and you understand that 20 to 25 mile an hour is just kind of a calm breeze and 60 mile an hour is not all that uncommon.Frank Lessiter:
Right. So what's happening, pHs have changed? You've got some acid soil problems? What's going on in those areas?Dave Franzen:
Part of the problem with the lack of knowledge about acidity is the historic practice of composite soil sampling. So in Illinois, where I came, of course it wasn't the variable rate technology in the mid seventies, and it wasn't until really about '89 or '90. But at least in that state, because of their grid sampling tradition from back in the twenties and thirties, it was sampled in well, first of all, about a 3.3 acre grid and then very soon after, maybe 1990 or so, they changed to a 2.5acre grid. But they weren't variable rating at that time, but it just gave them an idea. And then when the numbers came back from the lab, then you averaged the numbers and that's the number you used in order to apply the fertilizer, the lime or whatever. And so they had a knowledge. There's no mystery to me that variable rate application kind of started in Illinois with the [inaudible 00:20:11] and John Moore, I think that's what his name was, but it was because farmers already realized that there was variability across the field.
When I came up here to North Dakota and started talking about variability, because I did my sampling study up here too just like I did in Illinois, they just kind of looked at me and said, "The field's flat. There's no variability out there at all." And I said, "Yes there is. I can drive by the field and I can see yellow, green and all kinds of things in between," but it took him a little bit to figure that out and believe me that there really was variability and you needed to sample this way to get it. But as soon as people started his own sample, all of a sudden all this really low, really high pH. I worked in a 40 acre field with a intensive sampling study about 60 miles west of Fargo and the pH in 1995 varied from 4.9 to 7.8 in the same 40-acre field. And so these places have been around for a long time.
I did a survey in 1996 of the state, went to several areas within every county in the state, did a hilltop slope depressional area, and there was a large part of the state, almost 20% probably that had pHs below six five and some as low as the low fives. And I could go out right now and identify a few fields that had been conventional till forever and they had pHs down around 5.1, 5, something like that. But the people in the no-till are seeing the results quicker than their conventional till brethren because the acidity is all concentrated up on the top few inches because of where they place the urea or they shallow place ammonia over the last 30 years.
And so we're in a situation now where people have had to embrace liming and it's so foreign to them, but people are catching on and they realize if they don't do anything, it's just going to be bare. So onward we go, I guess. The no-tillers are going to be the ones address it first, but eventually, probably in a decade or so, there won't be very many conventional tillers around except the ones that have high mounts of calcium carbonate in their soil naturally. But the ones that don't are going to have to lime their conventional till fields and it's going to take them three times as much lime to do it because they're tilling down to probably six, eight inches or so.Frank Lessiter:
Right. My first experience with lime, I like to tell people today, I'm as old as dirt. I'm in my eighties, but I grew up on a farm north of Detroit, 40 miles. And we had a little 18-acre lake on the farm and my dad had somebody come in and we dug a marl pit. And so we started spreading marl, which led to I don't know all the chemistry on it, but it's somewhat similar to lime. So we started liming with marl-Dave Franzen:
Well, it's rock. It's all calcium carbonate, it's just really soft.Frank Lessiter:
Right, right. So we didn't even have to bring it to the farm. It was already there and all we had to do was spread it. So I'm a farmer up there. I'm a farmer 60 miles west of Fargo and I'm going to soil sample. How do you want me to take that sample, depths, et cetera?Dave Franzen:
For the phosphate, potash, organic matter, zinc, which is I think most of it and then probably salt, you take a zero to six inch sample, but then you continue on and do a two foot core because we use the zero to six plus the six to 24 for nitrate and nitrogen. We do have a deep freeze up here and so soil sampling in the fall, we find out how much nitrate there is and we directly subtract that from our nitrogen recommendation. And I find that's absolutely crucial for our nitrogen recommendations to be tight, otherwise it's just a kind of a guess. So I've tried it relating yields or relative yields, not national yields but relative yields with total known available in with and without the soil test, and the soil test really strengthens it a lot. And so that's very important.
That's why many fields up here are actually sampled every year as opposed to the corn belt, where they'll do PNK every four years or so. But it's sampled every year and it's important. So zone sampling is most relates to what the patterns are in the field and the zones, they're topography based so if you had some kind of a topography program, you can use that. I also encourage people to think about multi-year yield maps on relative yield. And it doesn't matter what crops they are, just put them in relative yield and stack them together. And satellite images, drone images, bare soil images sometimes. Never the soil survey maps because those lines aren't fine enough. And then what else? Electrical conductivity. A lot of people use a Veris.
A lot of people use the magnetic equivalent of that because magnetism and electricity are related mathematically, so if you use the magnetic EM-38 or something close to it, then it gives you the same patterns as using the Veris. And the EM-38 is nice because if you have a lot of rocks, it's going to tear your Veris up because those discs actually go into soil and the EM-38 doesn't. So there's any number of things that people could do. Particularly if you're a no-tiller and you find that you have some acid areas in your field, then go back into those areas and do a zero to two and the two to six so that you can find out really how low it is up in the surface because that's going to affect your residual herbicides. It's going to affect the nodulation of your legumes, and frankly, it's going to affect how much aluminum and manganese might get into that crop to cause a toxicity.Mackane Vogel:
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One of the things that came up at our National No-Tillage Conference the last couple years has been fertility stratification. What's going on up there? Is this a big concern of you people or not?Dave Franzen:
Well, it's a thing. So in the seventies, the no whole no-till idea was a farmer thing. I'm not sure, maybe eventually the experiment of the research people and the extension get in on it, but frankly it was a farmer idea, as many ideas are. And so when people around the tilling community heard about that, they were went apoplectic because they knew that it was going to result in stratification and the plants weren't going to get to it and oh my God, we're all going to die. And so there were several long-term studies of surface application versus deeper application, and they found it didn't make any difference at all. And when you think of it, it makes perfect sense. So let's consider a no-till field. It has a little bit of mulch on it, and so it's a moisture.
So that area up on the surface is moist for a very long time as opposed to its conventional till cousin, and then let's say it got really dry. Let's say in June it got really dry and it dried out that foot, two foot, something like that. When it rains, what's it wet up? Does it wet the two foot depth up or does it wet the surface up? It wets the surface up. So anytime we have a drought and anytime it sprinkles, anytime that you get a heavy fog, anytime that you have any kind of rain, it wets up the surface before it wets up to the deep. And so I think that's why they found that it didn't really make any difference whether you put it up near the top or you put it down deep. A lot of the studies I've seen that have deep banding, it doesn't really make any difference, and I think that's why.Frank Lessiter:
Do you think this applies to the corn belt too or just to your area?Dave Franzen:
I haven't seen anything compelling from [inaudible 00:29:36] or with Emerson's work in Illinois. Antonio did some deep banding work in Iowa and none of them are excited about deep placement. I think the thing they worry about the most is maybe putting it on in the fall of the year before the rains and then it goes into the streams and it goes into the rivers, and that's why I'm a chemical oceanographer. Did you know that?Frank Lessiter:
That was my career goal when I was in high school was to get a chemistry degree from Illinois and then I'd go to Woods Hole or someplace and get a master's, PhD maybe in chemical oceanography. So now that EPA and the government has designated that Missouri is part of the Gulf of Mexico and that the Red River moves up into the Arctic Ocean and nitrates and phosphates in the water is important, I'm officially a chemical oceanographer, so I've achieved my career goal.Frank Lessiter:
There you go. You mentioned Woods Hole. I've been to Woods Hole on the way to Nantucket Island, so I actually know where it is.Dave Franzen:
No, it's a very famous place.Frank Lessiter:
You grew up in an area and worked in an area where it was really corn and soybeans, and now with some of the climate change, these two crops are getting more important in North Dakota and South Dakota with new genetics. What's going on in that area?Dave Franzen:
It's interesting. I believe in climate change because I believe the glaciers were over my house at one time that were two miles high and that now they're gone, and so things come and go. And Greenland was green and then it wasn't, and then it was green again and then it wasn't, and so these things happen. And I think the Great Plains are a microcosm of climate change because we're in that border between sometimes it's wet and sometimes it's dry and sometimes it's hot and sometimes it's cold, and people that live here just go through that all the time. We don't know from year to year exactly what we're going to get. And so as far as farming goes, people up here are great gamblers so I don't know, maybe they'll all retire to Reno or Las Vegas because they already got it in their blood.
It's a big deal, but I think the thing that's really affected the soybeans and the corn more than anything else has been that genetics that you talked about, having the earlier in-breds. I think the seed companies have seen that the corn belt is pretty saturated, and certainly they still make advances because 300 of bushel corn in the Illinois is not all that uncommon anymore, the varieties we have, the soybean varieties, the corn varieties, especially the corn varieties. When I came here, I never thought that we'd be growing 250 bushel corn in North Dakota, but last year we had three different sites and there were areas within all of those experiments where we reached 250 bushel of corn. And not only in the valley, but geez, a hundred miles northwest of here. It just blew me away. So the genetics are really amazing, and we had late planning last year too.
So by the book, which is often wrong, but if you believe the book, there's no way that could have happened. But it did and probably will again sometime, maybe not next year, but sometime it will. It's Iowa with an intersperse of once in a while you see a beet field in the southeast part of the state. But we have soybeans growing all the way to Montana, all the way to Canada, all the way out west. Soybeans more than corn because the soybeans are kind of a low input crop, and unless you grow them for a long period of time, it really doesn't have the disease pressure and just nematode and sudden death syndrome that other places do. There'll be a honeymoon period of about a decade or so before those things start to come in.
But I like the state because there's so much diversity in it. Sure. It's not California, it's not Oregon, but as far as being a short tail corn belt state, we got the corn and the soybeans and so they're lucky they hired me because they had hired me in spite of my experience in that. But spring wheat, durum, different kinds of barley, oats, any small grain you can think of. Pretty major sunflowers, very major canola. About 18 to 20 different crops that are pretty major depending on where you are in the state and that keeps you fresh it. Nothing is boring here.Frank Lessiter:
Well, one of the problems we see in the corn belt is corn and soybeans, that's the rotation. They're not diversified. And your people up there, if they're putting corn soybeans in their rotation, it's probably more diversified than it is in the corn belt.Dave Franzen:
There are some people that pretend that they're Iowa, but I would say that most people, 90% of them have at least a third crop in there.Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. One of the hot spots right now is dwarf corn or shorter corn. What's that mean to no-tillers? Some no-tillers are saying, "Maybe I won't have as much residue to leave on the surface," and others will say, "Well, I got too much now. Maybe shorter corn will be a benefit.:" What do you know about shorter corn?Dave Franzen:
Well, I don't know anything about shorter corn. That's news to me, but just let's pretend I do know something about it. If I was a new no-till maybe three, four, five years, something like that, or maybe I was really into narrow rows, then I think maybe the shorter corn might be a decent option to get started. The long-term no-till, it's exactly like you're saying is you go west of Missouri River where the yield potential is maybe 150, 160 bushels on a good year as opposed to maybe 250 over here on the east side, they need as much residue as they can. I've heard more than once that one of the problems that people west river have in the western part of the state is that they have trouble keeping the residue on the field, that they really need some high residue crops. And certainly their small grains will do that. The corn will do that. Sunflowers a little bit, but those leaves rot really fast and any legume you put out there rots really fast too.
But they developed a biology where the worms, the beetles, those kind of things will come up and they'll chew those and drag them back down, and you go out there in the spring after its say a corn crop and there's really nothing there, but the stalk's sticking up. There's no mulch there at all, so I know what they're saying. That happens, and that happened when I was in Illinois too. We had a pretty good sized customer that went no-till and we all thought he was a little bit crazy, but he was doing the right thing. And when I went out there after three or four years no-till in spring of the year, you could see all these holes around where the earthworms that were coming up. At night they're coming up and chewing the leaves, dragging them back down the holes, and so all you could see is just last year's stalks. You didn't see any leaves or anything out there. It was remarkable.Frank Lessiter:
And some of these earthworm holes, it's remarkable. You go in there and you can see where they've actually pulled the leaves down into the holes.Dave Franzen:
No, I've never seen that, but it was pretty clear to me what was going on.Frank Lessiter:
Well, you were one of our no-Till Innovator award winners about five years ago, and I was looking over what we had written about you at the time and a couple things I'd like to talk about. As you came up to North Dakota, you brought some expertise with you on tile drainage and precision ag. Can you highlight what you've been doing in those areas?Dave Franzen:
Well, I've certainly been supportive on the tile and I think Hans Kandel, my colleague over in plant sciences, he's done a lot of work. Tom Scherer and the ag engineering department, he's done a lot of work with that. I've been supportive, but they've been the real teachers. But as far as site specific, I think the work I did in Illinois with Ted Peck, I reproduced that up here and I figured my first year that I would find out exactly what I did in Illinois, that we needed a sample an acre in order to do it. And since we were at sampling two feet for most crops and four feet for sugar beets, that it would be entirely impractical.
And so I did it because I knew what I was doing, and I was getting my feet wet and learning all this stuff in this steep curve. But then when I did it the second year on the same fields and I saw the same patterns and nitrate, which is something that was taught in my classes that I never see but I saw it, then it just dawned on me that these patterns are there for a reason. Let's figure out what the reason is, and we don't have to do all these sampling and we'd still get that detail. So the zone sampling, I'm not going to say I'm invented it.
I stole some ideas from people up in Canada that were working their papers mentioned [inaudible 00:38:49] terrain. And then Raj Khosla was getting his PhD about the same time that I was here at North Dakota, and he worked with zones too in Colorado. He's in Kansas State now. And so there were a few of us that worked on the zone approach, and that's what works up here. That's what made site-specific nutrient application up here profitable. That's what made it practical. If we were having to do a dense zone grid, no way in the world nobody would ever be doing that, but a lot of people are up here and so I feel good about that.Frank Lessiter:
What about cover crops?Dave Franzen:
You want to hear my great failing?Frank Lessiter:
All right. So my very good friend Bill Raun, that passed away a couple years ago, he worked with a couple of ag engineers, as you know, and developed the GreenSeeker down at Oklahoma State. And so after a while of working on the soil part of it, then I started working and seeing that this might help us with the in-season application for corn at first, and then lately with small grains. And so we developed algorithms for coming in about V5, V6 corn or so, and detecting with the help of an N-Rich Strip or an N-sufficient Strip, whenever you want to call it, is a standard within the field within a variety that whether you needed additional nitrogen and really with the algorithm, about how much you should apply. So that's been published for what, five, six years now? And lately just upgraded it.
And then just lately, I have algorithms for spring wheat for going out there about V5, using the same system, an N-Rich Strip and then using the algorithm with the readings at V5 to figure out how much nitrogen you might apply as a top dress for yield. And then I think I'm the only one that has this, I guess I'll own it, but we also have an algorithm if you go in at Flag Leaf with the N-rich strip. Well, actually not even that. If you go in at Flag Leaf knowing whether your spring wheat variety tends to have protein or it's one of them that tends to be lower protein, that you can use that reading to see if an immediately post anthesis N application will give you a protein increase that may be profitable, depending on what the buyers might give you.
And so all those things are published, and the corn one's been published for a long time. I really wonder myself if there's anybody at all in the state that uses that. There's more data, there's more papers, there's more book chapters, there's more books about using these active sensors to direct an in-season application of nitrogen than almost anything I can think of. I know just ourselves, it's just thousands and thousands of points of data and papers and book chapters and extension articles. I asked Brian Arnall, who's down at Oklahoma State, he worked with Bill Raun when he was there and he succeeded him down at Oklahoma.
I asked him about a year ago, I said, "You guys have had really, really focused extension programs on the use of the [inaudible 00:42:17] and you guys invented it, so how many of your producers use it?" And he said, "10%." So that's my great failing. All that work. Someday people will use it, but I don't know, maybe it's one of those things where a piece of art doesn't become valuable until the person dies. But it's there, there's no reason why people can't use it. The other thing to do is just to guess, and I think this data is a lot better than guessing,Frank Lessiter:
But at the same time, you talked a little earlier about the Veris unit and there were lots of skeptics about that for years, and now apparently it's catching on in your area, right?Dave Franzen:
Yeah. One of the things that confuses people is they think that at least up here, that it would help identify one thing out in the field. You use a Veris in different parts of the United States or the world, and a lot of times everything is just so background noise is that the one thing that's important to you is the only thing that really reads. But up here it's different because we actually have soluble salts. We have soluble salts to a great degree in many fields, so it's reading that, it's reading soil moisture. It's reading soil organic method, it's reading depth to a limiting layer. It's reading all of those things all at once, and so I tell people here that if you're using it for more than just a pattern detector to build a zone on, then you're asking too much of it.
But if I went to Missouri and tried to use it to depth to their limiting layer, that really high clay thing that's underneath some of their fields, or in an area where there's fragile pans, you could use it for that. And I've even seen people use it in Nebraska when everything else, there's no salts, the moisture is about the same, all of those things are very, very similar, they can even detect where there's higher nitrate and where there's less nitrate. But that doesn't happen up here because you got so many things all confounding, all going on at once. So to us it's just a pattern detector.Frank Lessiter:
Is there anything that you'd like to talk about that I missed bringing up to you?Dave Franzen:
The one thing I guess I just want to say is that I appreciate you and your ability to communicate and your ability to support people that are no-till. So many people, especially ones that are pioneers in their community doing this, there's a lot of peer pressure against this. And so if you decide to switch the no-till and you leave your stalks standing and you leave your stubble and then you go to the grocery store, you go to the church or you go to the bar or something like that, somebody's always going to be rib, you're like, "Okay, so when's the farm sale?" Stuff like that. And so being able to read articles and to get help from like-minded people, that's really important to people that are trying to do the right thing.Frank Lessiter:
Well, one of the things that bugs me is the hot words these days are soil health and sustainability, and then you look at what no-tillers have been doing for 30 years. They've been keeping the cover on the soil, they've been keeping residue all winter, and all of a sudden they qualify for sustainability but my gosh, they've been doing it themselves for 30 years. It's not new to them.Dave Franzen:
And so I don't know how many legislatures or policymakers actually read your material, but I'm just going to put this out there. People look at the six inch layer, that surface layer, and they figure that somebody's been doing no-till for 40 years, that's as good as it's going to get. And that's not true because these prairie soils in the moisture areas in North Dakota and other places of the east, these areas were often two, three feet thick of very dark soil. Joe Breker, his name's come up a couple times. Joe has some of his fields that has soils of 6.5 to 7.5% organic matter, so that's remarkable.
And I would say that probably in those soils, the six inch depth is probably peaked as far as organic matter, but if you sample his fields, he also has that dark soil moving down towards a foot, and so he's developing depth as well as the percent of organic matter. And so I think it's totally unfair that people look at people who have been doing no-till for a long time and figure they've done all they can, and that's not true. They're still sequestering carbon probably at a greater rate than people that just make the switch, and so they need to be compensated as well.Frank Lessiter:
We just celebrated our 31st year of having our National No-Tillage Conference, and Joe Breker and his brother Gene were speakers at the very first one we ever had in I think 1993.Dave Franzen:
Wow. That's great.Frank Lessiter:
So Joe and Gene and I are all old now.Dave Franzen:
Yeah. Well, you're talking to the choir here.Frank Lessiter:
Yeah. All right.Mackane Vogel:
That's all for this episode of No-Till Farmer Influencers and Innovators podcast. Thanks to Dave Franzen for joining us, and thanks again to our sponsor, Crop Vitality and Thio-Sul for helping to make this series possible. A transcript of this episode and our archive of previous podcast episodes are both available at no-tillfarmer.com. For our entire staff here at No-Till Farmer, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening. Keep on no-tilling and have a great day.