Pictured Above: Steve and Dennis Berger
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NAME: Steve Berger
FARM: Dennis Berger & Son Inc.
LOCATION: Wellman, Iowa
YEARS NO-TILLING: 38
CROPS: Corn and soybeans
Location, location, location. That’s honestly one of the reasons I’ve been successful in no-till over the years. I’m not talking about the land, though — it’s the people I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by.
I farm in Washington County in southeast Iowa, which has become a hotbed for no-till innovators. Our region isn’t flat like many people assume of Iowa, but rather is classified as Southern Drift Plains. Fields range from moderate slopes to river bottoms and we have a lot of Highly Erodible Land (HEL). That may be why we have so many conservation-minded farmers here in our county. In turn, exceptionally good extension, NRCS personnel and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts have long supported them.
NITROGEN GAME. Steve Berger has up to seven different opportunities to get nitrogen (N) on his no-tilled fields in Wellman, Iowa, including tank-mixing UAN with his post-emergence herbicide application. He’s moved to more frequent surface applications of N fertilizer and manure to keep the nutrient readily available, so his crops never have to hunt for it.
Erosion was a problem for us, especially on fields planted to soybeans where slopes hit 9-14%. When our extension director at the time, Jim Frier, wanted my father, Dennis, to attend a no-till meeting in 1978, my father was highly interested. Several area farmers got started in no-till that year and we no-tilled our first crop, which was corn into a cereal rye cover crop, in 1979. It was part of my 4-H project, but it quickly moved beyond that.
We haven’t done a lot of tillage since then. It’s taken a few years to work it out, but eventually we went 100% no-till and, for the last 8 years, we’ve used cereal rye cover crops on every acre, too.
As we pushed forward in those early years we had a lot of support from our peers and it was a very collaborative endeavor. Farmers, extension agents, everyone worked together to compare notes on equipment and strategies. Our farm retail outlets and co-ops came to meetings and got on board and there was a big push for no-till. You jump over the county line where there wasn’t that leadership and no-till is much more scarce. It really has been, and continues to be, about the support system we have here for no-till.
It helped that my dad was a pusher, too. He was very innovative, always trying things just to see if it worked.
We’ve been at this for more than 3 decades now, but just when we think we’ve got no-till all figured out, we find the need to change something. Some change is the result of new research or new products, but no-till is a system of change, too. Soil structure, soil life, cover crops, insect pressures — it has all shifted and continues to do so as the years go on. We must adapt our farming practices and equipment setups to account for those changes as they occur.
Our planter is a prime example of where we’ve made a lot of tweaks over the years. The first year we no-tilled dad bought a brand new Kinze planter. Jon Kinzenbaw lives just 30 miles from us so we went up, loaded up the planter on our grain truck right from his facility and brought it home in pieces. It was a Kinze rear-folding bar with John Deere planter units. We put it together in our shop, adding 1-inch fluted no-till coulters because that’s what made a planter no-till in those days.
We no-tilled corn into a cereal rye cover crop first. We might have had an instance or two of an open slot, but in general the corn looked great. The coulters did a nice job of chopping up the stalks to make way for the double-disc opener. As we continued to no-till, though, sidewall compaction became a persistent problem. After about 5 years we attributed the sidewall compaction to the no-till coulters. We pulled them off the planter and added spiked closing wheels to try and avoid sidewall compaction.
GREEN LIGHT. Biologically active soils and carbon-rich cover crop residue can result in competition for available nitrogen (N). Steve Berger has started planting into green cover crops to better time the N cycle and make sure his crops come out on top.
With the coulters gone, we started experimenting with row cleaners. We went through a half dozen different types trying to move residue and warm up the furrow. One early prototype row cleaner was invented by Onslow, Iowa, farmer Lyman Lanpher. The row cleaner resembled a small hay rake that did a great job moving residue and leaving the soil intact.
We’ve now settled on Martin row cleaners that can be adjusted to the perfect height from the tractor cab with CleanSweep pneumatic cylinders from Precision Planting.
Depth control has been another challenge. For a while we put Case IH Reduced Inner Diameter (RID) gauge wheels on our John Deere row units. The recess in the tire where it bumped up against the disc opener allowed the soil to fracture, which reduced sidewall compaction. Now we interchange between the RID gauge wheels and the standard John Deere gauge wheels. This is because we’re seeing our soils change.
As we get further into the no-till process, our soils continue to mellow, resulting in a flowerpot-type soil that is very easy to plant into — almost like tilled ground. That’s why we’ve seen reason to change our planter to make it more like it was when we did tillage, because our soils are that mellow. We must continue to adapt the equipment as our soils change.
Our goal is perfect singulation, seed depth and furrow closing to result in even emergence and spacing. In addition to the Martin row cleaners with CleanSweep control, we currently have our planter set up with Precision Planting vDrive meters with SpeedTubes for fast, accurate seed placement with variable-rate capabilities.
Investing in the 20/20 SeedSense Monitor and other Precision Planting technologies has probably been one of the best returns on investment for our farm. We’re getting good singulation, the DeltaForce hydraulically controlled down pressure gets us to the perfect seed depth without compaction, and it does a nice job of recording all the information by row on the go. The whole system provides us with a lot of control and information when it comes to planting.
Multiple applications, mostly on the surface, means our corn isn’t hunting for nitrogen at any time…
A significant change to our corn planting operation is how we approach fertility application. In the past, we used a coulter to apply nitrogen (N) in a 2-by-3-inch placement. But the equipment added a significant amount of weight to our planter and was more of a tillage-type setup, which we didn’t want.
So we decided to remove the extra coulters routing the supply lines to behind the closing wheel, where I use a splitter to dribble 30-60 pounds of N on the surface. Some N is also applied in-furrow as a pop-up. This is a much simpler, lighter and cheaper way to apply N, and I feel like the N is more readily available.
We also apply N multiple times throughout the year. We seed cereal rye cover crops as soon as possible after harvest with our 40-foot 4740 All Plant CrustBuster no-till drill with 10-inch row units equipped with heave limiters and Keeton seed firmers. We replace the notched opener that comes standard with a smooth one so both openers are smooth. In addition to seeding our cover crop, we use our drill to spread 140 pounds of ammonium sulfate, 21-0-0-24, a stable form of N. This application feeds the microbes to encourage breakdown of the crop residue and give the cereal rye a boost.
We have a 15,000-head farrow-to-finish hog operation and there are a lot of turkey operations in our area, so we incorporate a lot of manure into our system, too. The swine manure is custom applied with both tanks and drag hose systems. All swine manure is currently surface-applied to avoid loosening soil and to leave a smoother planting surface.
We noticed row unit ride, measured by our Precision Planting 20/20 monitor, was not as good with injected manure. As a result, we went back to surface application. The manure infiltration rates are pretty good in the long-term no-till environment.
Cereal rye has helped with that. The soils are so biologically active we can stream on 6,000 gallons of nursery manure per acre and it will quickly infiltrate. Swine manure is applied in the fall and the spring. We like to apply the turkey manure in early fall to avoid surface runoff. The long-term no-till, cover-crop system allows us to spring-apply manure with less compaction issues. Acres on which we apply hog manure in the spring are usually some of our best corn.
More N is applied with the planter and then we add another 50 pounds of UAN tank-mixed with our post-emergence herbicide application. In some fields we have up to seven different opportunities to add N.
Multiple applications mostly on the surface means our corn isn’t hunting for N at any time. When you drive past my fields at 60 mph they might look the same as a guy who is using anhydrous in the fall, but if you slow down you can see our fields are uniformly green and we’re not losing yield potential.
Watching yields jump 40-50 bushels when I pass over an old fencerow tells me our soils have been severely degraded. We’re working to rebuild those soils, but it takes time. Geology is a science that looks at millions of years, so we can’t expect to make big jumps in our soils. It’s like working out; you just have to keep at it to achieve the benefits.
FIELD SHIELD. Steve Berger had an aha moment 15 years ago at the National No-Tillage Conference when he realized he needed cover crops to secure his soils and feed microbes for the 5-7 months his fields weren’t producing a crop. He’s experimented with species like these oats, but has settled predominantly on cereal rye.
Our goal is to add carbon and life back to the soil. No-till, adding manure and using cover crops are our tools for achieving that goal.
Cereal rye has long been our primary cover crop as it can germinate in very dry and very cold conditions, and grows well on eroded slopes and poor soils, which is perfect for us.
It has a tremendous root system. If you wait a bit to terminate it in the spring, its roots can reach down to 45 inches deep, adding carbon to the soil and creating pathways for water and crop roots. The dense cover also helps prevent surface erosion by taking the energy out of falling rain before it impacts the ground, plus the root holds the soil in place.
Cereal rye and no-till have helped us build soil aggregates with adequate pore space for air and water. Our neighbor is a soil scientist and took samples of our soils that he sent to the state geologist who examined them under a microscope. The pictures he provided showed us the aggregates and pore space and how they compared with tilled soils, which had none. It was really proof to us of what we already knew was going on in our fields, that we are creating healthy soils.
The aggregates we saw have likely been created with the help of mycorrhizal fungi and other soil life producing proteins that help the soil stick together. This has been critical in recent years. Since around 2011 we’ve consistently gotten 2-, 3-, 5-, 6- and even 7-inch rains. It’s not uncommon now to get heavy rain events in a growing season. If our soils weren’t secured with no-till and cover crops, we would be losing a lot on our class C and D sloped soils. With these heavy rain events we do see water coming off our fields, but it is very clear. No soil is leaving with that water.
Cereal rye adds a lot of carbon to our system, which is what we want. But if we’re not careful, the extra carbon can cause problems with N availability to our growing crops.
EVOLVING TOOLS. Over the years, Steve Berger has made many changes to his planter and expects to continue making changes as his soils continue to adapt to no-till and cover crops. His soils have become so mellow he’s even considered reverting back to planter setups more commonly used in tilled soils.
When the cereal rye is terminated and starts to decay, the soil microbes go bananas devouring the carbon, like kids drinking Mountain Dew. According to the NRCS, soil microorganisms have a carbon-to-N (C:N) ratio of 8:1 they must maintain. When they’re feeding on a high carbon like cereal rye, they take in N to maintain that ratio.
The ideal C:N ratio of the food for soil microorganisms is 24:1, according to the NRCS, which is very close to alfalfa. Wheat straw, on the other hand, has about an 80:1 ratio. When the ratio is high, as it is with wheat straw, cereal rye and similar crops, the microorganisms will seek out extra N to find balance. N isn’t lost, but it’s temporarily immobilized, so the growing crop can’t get to it. By spoon-
feeding with several sources of N starting early in the fall, we have measured C:N ratios below 10:1 in the spring at V4-V6 growth stage on our corn during that critical ear establishment period.
We don’t want the soil microorganisms competing with our corn for N, so we’re trying to time our burndown to control nutrient cycling in our favor. One strategy is to burn down the cereal cover crop 2-3 weeks prior to planting so the surge in activity is over before the corn is up and growing. But that doesn’t work for our schedule as we’re trying to plant corn and soybeans as early as possible. Our No. 1 goal is still successful crop production. I want to plant my crop when it’s supposed to be planted, not be worrying about the cover crop.
Our current theory and strategy is if we plant into a green cover crop, our corn will get to the applied N before the microbes are put in overdrive going after the decaying cereal rye. For now, we’re terminating some of our cereal rye the same day we plant. In corn, that makes the cereal rye about a foot tall. It dies within a week or so and I’ve found the green cover to actually be easier to plant into.
In soybeans, we wait up to 5 days after planting to terminate the cereal rye. At that point the rye can be shoulder high and headed out. Getting the timing right is something we’ll continue to experiment with.
Increased insect pressure is another issue we deal with due to our cover crops. Armyworms are attracted to the green, growing cereal rye when they migrate in spring. Once the cover is terminated they move onto the next green, growing thing — our crop. Black cutworm moths also seem to be really attracted to the cereal rye.
BREATHING ROOM. When examined under a microscope, Steve Berger’s soils (left), show the increased porosity and aggregation he’s developed through no-till and cover crops, compared to a soil sample from a conventionally tilled field (right).
Photos Courtesy of the usda-nrcs
Biologists have told me with diversity and no-till and such that beneficial insects will move in and control the pests, too. That may be true, but in the meantime we’ve found it essential to use insecticides to combat the issue. It’s hard to wait it out when you know how fast a pest like armyworms work. If you see them on a Friday, you can’t wait until Monday to treat or your whole crop will be gone, so I choose to be proactive.
We know we have issues with them, so we’re always scouting and prepared to treat. Since it’s a recurring issue, we usually include an insecticide in our post-emergence herbicide application when corn is at the 2- to 3-leaf stage. Some people include it in their initial burndown, but I want to make sure the insecticide is there and working closer to when the insects are coming in. I pay attention to growing degree days and get on the university extension websites to see when insects are likely to be an issue.
I usually use 4-6 ounces of generic Capture insecticide but you can adjust the rate up and down to get more or less residual control. At $2-$3 per acre it’s relatively cheap compared to other farm inputs. I also apply 4-5 ounces in-furrow to protect against seed-attacking pests such as wireworm and eventually black cutworm larvae.
One of my neighbors was watching me one year and copied everything I was doing. I didn’t realize it at the time, so he didn’t get the message that I had an insecticide in my post-
emergence herbicide application. My field was fine while armyworms mowed off his right across the fence. It really is an essential application for me due to our region and the use of cereal rye as a cover crop.
We have to continue to adapt to keep up with our ever-changing system and work toward rebuilding soils degraded by years of tillage. Our yields confirm our current strategies are paying off. Corn yields are consistently 25% above county average and our soybeans are usually 15% above, despite us having poorer soils than most of the county. That tells us we’re on the right track.