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NAME: Paul Ackley
LOCATION: Bedford, Iowa
YEARS NO-TILLING: 30
CROPS: Corn, soybeans, soft red winter wheat
I never was one to like tillage. It just didn’t make sense. You would go through and make a perfect seedbed to plant into and then, without fail, you couldn’t get back in the field with the planter before it would rain. Then you would have to start all over again.
I probably first heard about no-till when I was in high school in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until many years later when my wife, Nancy, and I had our own farm that we gave no-till a try.
The 1980s are what gave us the push. Just like everyone else at the time, we were financially strapped. There wasn’t any money to hire someone to till the fields, so we were almost forced into no-till. The banker asked us where we were getting the money to buy the planter and we just said we’d steal it out of cashflow. We also got the chance to rent a neighboring farm, which doubled our crop acres, so we really had to do something different.
Our first piece of no-till equipment was a four-row John Deere 7000 planter with no-till coulters and a setup for dry starter fertilizer. We picked off the easy no-till acres first, no-tilling corn into soybean stubble. We didn’t jump right into no-tilling soybeans into corn stalks because, at the time, we didn’t have an herbicide we could depend on for soybeans.
By 2000 we were 100% no-tilling corn, soybeans and wheat, largely because we had cattle and a farrow-to-finish hog operation that took up a lot of our time.
But after years of no-till experience, we came to realize no-till alone wasn’t a perfect farming system. Now I believe that the values of no-till are oversold if cover crops aren’t part of the mix. It’s like farming with one hand tied behind your back.
By the late 1990s, we didn’t think our crops were looking as good as they had with tillage. We were concerned about it.
I got some answers as I was doing some tiling. As the tiling machine moved across some hay strips we had left on a hillside to protect against water erosion, I noticed some real differences. There was beautiful soil structure under the sod, while just a few feet away the soil I had been no-tilling for 20 years had almost no structure in the top 6 inches.
This made sense, as I had noticed I was getting more erosion than when I had originally started no-tilling. I was starting to become disillusioned with no-till, but I was too stubborn to quit. I knew that tillage wasn’t the answer.
After some thought, I considered the successes I’d had planting cereal rye back in the 1970s when I was still tilling. In 1974 we had a drought and I cut a bunch of corn for silage. The bare ground didn’t look good, so we spread some fertilizer and cereal rye and worked it in with a disc.
It was a beautiful stand, and when I turned it over with a plow the next spring the soil was very mellow and didn’t erode as badly, even with tillage. We played with cereal rye a little more over the years, using it on the steeper slopes of our farm, which has rolling hills covered with silty-clay-loam soil that doesn’t absorb water readily.
Thinking back on the results of these earlier experiences with cover crops, we realized that we needed soil structure and roots in the soil —even with no-till.
Back to Covers
After the tiling revelation, we started adding cereal rye to our fertilizer spinner as we spread phosphorus and potassium on corn stalks in the fall ahead of soybeans.
We got decent stands and visible weed suppression. In the spring, we got into our fields to plant at least one day earlier than our neighbors thanks to the stubble.
There were benefits, but there were issues, too. I always liked to burn the rye down before I planted, and didn’t want to wait too long after I sprayed to get in the field with the planter.
We ended up planting when the rye was in what I call the “rubber band” stage. It would be waist high, maybe heading out, and when we went through it with the planter it would push over and then bounce right back up, like a rubber band.
It was difficult to plant because you couldn’t see where you had been. I considered buying a foam-marker system, but my crop consultant convinced me to buy a light bar guidance system. It was the perfect, simple solution and I still use it today.
We did a lot of tweaking on our cover crop management strategy over the years. We had achieved great success with cover crops ahead of soybeans. It was almost a symbiotic relationship. Where we had cereal rye the soybeans emerged quicker and there was some shelter for the plants if there was hail. Our soybean yields now are consistently at the top of the chart for our county and soil type.
We haven’t achieved that success with corn. We kept doing little plots to figure out how to get better results. When we planted cereal rye ahead of corn, the crop looked like it was having nitrogen-shortage issues. Our solution was in termination timing.
When we terminated the cereal rye at 6-8 inches tall and waited 10 days before planting corn, a lot of the issues we had with corn after cereal rye began to disappear. We also started using a liquid nitrogen starter with the corn, which gave it a nice boost.
Still, we knew we weren’t doing our corn crop any favors by planting it behind another grass species. We needed to get some diversity in the mix to help even out the issues of planting two similar crops back to back. We started adding brassicas, mostly turnips, to our fall mix after soybeans.
Once we did that we seemed to get even further from that grass effect on the corn. We get a better mixture of microbes in the soil that like the broadleaves and the residue seemed to break down a little faster which was beneficial for the corn.
We were on the right track with cover crops, but adding wheat to our rotation opened a lot of doors and really took our soils and crops to the next level.
In 2009 we planted our first soft red winter wheat to add diversity to our farm. We now plant 80-150 acres of wheat each year. Adding wheat allowed us to shift some of our harvest days to summer and gave us the opportunity to really step up our cover-crop game.
The wheat is harvested in mid-July and we come in immediately and drill a diverse cover-crop mix that includes three or four legumes, such as cowpeas, soybeans, hairy vetch, red clover or even sunnhemp. We add those to brown midrib sorghum, pearl millet, oats and sunflowers.
There’s usually also some volunteer wheat in the mix. This mix gives us a wide variety of leaf types, root types (and depths) and crop heights, just like you see in nature. Our goal is to break up soil compaction, build organic matter and soil structure and support soil life.
By mid-September the cover is waist high and ready to be grazed. We run 80-120 cow/calf pairs and usually background our own calves. We also have a small flock of hair sheep. We use our livestock to graze the cover starting anywhere from September through February, and leave the cows in until just before the frost goes out of the ground in the spring.
We usually get about 40 cow days per acre of grazing and use electric fence to rotate the animals and give pastures a nice break.
Grazing is carefully monitored. We don’t want the cows to grub the cover to the ground. We want to leave enough to hold some snow and feed the microbes under the ground. Usually we take a third to half of the forage.
The cattle look excellent after grazing the cover and really like it. I think they add to the soil-health equation, too, in that they give us some more biological diversity. An added bonus is that manure isn’t concentrated in a feeding area in my pastures. Instead, it’s spread around as the herd grazes.
Since adding wheat, a diverse cover and cattle to our cropping rotation, we’ve reached a real milestone. In 2014, we had our first soil test reveal organic matter levels over 4%. We had stalled out at 3% with just no-till.
I think both wheat and the covers contribute to this boost. We spread all of our wheat straw behind the combine, and then the cover produces another 1-5 tons of dry matter on top of that. The sorghum in the cover mix has a very dense, fibrous root that also puts a lot of organic matter back in the ground.
On the acres where we’ve used this strategy, we’ve seen organic matter improve, earthworms return, soil temperatures moderate, soil structure improve, water infiltration increase, pH hold at 6.2 to 6.7 without lime, and our cation exchange capacity, which determines nutrient holding, increase.
Due to all the extra plant matter and nutrient holding, we’ve completely stopped using phosphorus and potassium in our corn crop following the diverse mix.
Due to the excellent soil structure and increased water infiltration, we can usually get in the field to harvest corn and soybeans a day earlier than our neighbors. That, combined with the fact that we’re willing to harvest corn at 22% moisture, helps us get on our custom harvester’s schedule a little easier.
We’ve gotten our no-till soils closer to the soils that I saw in the sod lines, and I really like the idea that I’m rebuilding and regenerating the soil because we are definitely farming a degraded resource.
Keeping It Simple
Our planter really is a simple tool these days. We run an 8-row planter with Kinze row units on a New Idea frame. The row units use standard double-disc openers, a fertilizer tube drops 25 pounds of 28% liquid nitrogen in the furrow right ahead of standard rubber closing wheels, with a drag chain finishing the job. The rest of the nitrogen, usually 90-100 pounds, is sidedressed in season with an injection coulter.
We’ve found that once you get your soil right, you don’t need a lot of gadgets to plant. I’ve removed my no-till coulters and trash whippers and, before long, will likely remove the furrow ‘V’ closers on the row units.
I’m able to pull this rig with my John Deere 4020 tractor. Even planting into cover crop residue I don’t have any issues. For wheat and soybeans we use a John Deere 750 no-till drill on 7.5-inch spacing. We prefer to seed corn and soybeans at the same time, hopefully April 15, so Nancy runs the drill while I run the planter.
We like to get a good start on all of our crops to make sure we have plenty of time in the fall to get covers established. We’ve also planted shorter maturity corn hybrids and soybean varieties for that reason.
I really like the idea that my farming practices are rebuilding and regenerating the soil. I don’t like to talk about conservation, because that’s keeping things the same.
I don’t want to conserve the norm, which for cropland is about 3 tons of soil lost per acre per year to erosion. I want to improve it. Why should we lose any soil and all the nutrients in it? We have the knowledge to do better, and we should.