About 75% OF the acres around me still aren’t no-tilled. I can’t blame them. It wasn’t the easiest change to make, but it’s well worth it in my opinion.
I look at the generations coming up after us in agriculture — such as my son, possibly — and those effected by the decisions I make on the farm, like my daughter and her family, whose drinking water is pulled from rivers in my watershed, and know that no-till is the right choice for my farm for so many reasons.
For my part I’ve long participated in no-till tours and field days, working with the soil conservation district and others to help demonstrate the benefits of no-till. What has long been a help to me on my personal no-till journey, though, is what I call my No-Till Club.
There was a handful of us in the area that wanted to try no-till in the early 1980s. We were among the first in our area try it so there was a lot of uncertainty. Having the support of other like-minded people helped overcome the doubts.
Check The Specs...
NAME: Jim and Donna Riesberg
LOCATION: Carroll, Iowa
YEARS NO-TILLING: 34
CROPS: Corn, Soybeans
The first couple of years we went together to rent a no-till planter and had our own little tours and meetings. Several times per year we would get together and go look at our fields. We’d compare notes, get a good look at how the crops were doing from place to place and determine what was working, what wasn’t, and plan our next moves.
We did our best to help each other. This collaboration and support was probably more critical to our success than we can ever calculate. And being successful in no-till is something I consider to be critical for where we farm.
Most of our ground is gently rolling to quite hilly. It’s highly erodible. My father was always concerned about erosion. We would get a hard rain and the water washing out of our fields would be chocolate brown.
We’ve long used waterways and terraces to try to ebb the flow of soil from our fields. Even with contouring everything, we still saw erosion. That was one of the leading reasons we started looking at no-till.
Secondary was the labor-saving aspect. I worked an off-farm construction job when I first started renting and farming some of my parents’ acres, putting time at a premium.
Dad was initially concerned it wouldn’t work, and his concerns weren’t out of line. It was the early 1980s and we didn’t have the chemicals to back us up like we do today.
Even so, we rented a John Deere 7000 no-till planter and used it to no-till corn into soybeans. The corn wasn’t quite as bright green as the neighbors’ — but when it came to yield we were never much off our neighbors’ haul.
“The first day out planting I may only do 20 acres and spend a half day behind the planter checking settings…”
Initially the soils were tough to plant into, but no-till had promise. So after 2 years of renting we purchased our own Case IH no-till planter and went 100% no-till.
Before long, rill erosion disappeared. Water no longer ran down our hills taking soil with it. Instead it followed the root paths and the holes from the now-booming earthworm population into the soil profile.
Our soil tilth and health was improving and the longer we stuck with it, the better things got. Nowadays our yields are just as good or better than those using tillage and our soils are mellow and easy to plant into.
After no-till, one of the biggest changes on our farm happened when data-driven precision inputs became a possibility. In about 1995 we started soil sampling on 2½-acre grids and fertilizing according to those results. Our local co-op had a new agronomist who was enthusiastic about the technology and worked with us to figure it all out.
Grid testing showed us that we had a lot of different soil types on our farm and there were some very different fertility needs from one soil type to the next.
We started fertilizing accordingly, but the real enlightenment came when we were eventually able to layer in data from our yield monitors. This created a big move in our operation as we really dialed in on what fertilizer was needed where and how available that fertilizer was to the growing plant.
With the yield monitor we were learning way more than we ever thought we could about what was happening in our soils.
We were putting way too much fertility in some spots, based on actual crop performance, and moved that fertility to where it was needed.
Another eye opener was pinpointing where we needed lime. Some areas needed so much more than others. Once we got the pH levels right with lime we could use precision phosphate and potash applications to produce better crops, maximizing our benefits.
This data let us identify acres that shouldn’t be cropped, too. The poorest spots we put into CRP or a small grass buffer strip. If the poorly performing spot is small enough we just farm through it but limit the inputs.
We’re looking for consistency in our fields. When we see the yield drop down to 30 bushels per acre when the rest of the field is yielding 230-240 bushels, it may not warrant planting.
Soil testing is on a 4-year rotation. We’ve tried sampling in shorter intervals but haven’t seen any benefit to greater frequency. Our agronomist does all our soil sampling and we have the lime, phosphate and potash custom variable-rate applied according to the results.
Getting planting right is obviously critical, which is why I devote as much time as necessary to ensuring my planter is set for near-perfect performance. It doesn’t matter what brand of planter is used, or what the attachments are, if you just pull into the field and start planting without checking its performance or making any adjustments.
The first day out planting I may only do 20 acres and spend a half day behind the planter checking settings. Too often I see the weather get fit for planting and people race to the field. They don’t have the patience to reset and readjust.
Pushing Further. Decades of no-till have Jim Riesberg’s soils in excellent shape, but he’s experimenting with cover crops to take them to the next level and to be prepared if he acquires land that needs a quick transition. Cereal rye and radishes or rape are aerially seeded into standing crops. Pictured is a cover mix just after soybean harvest.
When I get in the field I check every row for seed depth and sidewall compaction. If the openers are smearing the sidewall, and the closing system isn’t firming up that soil to ensure good seed-to-soil contact, I will likely choose to park my planter for a day or two.
For those that push ahead it isn’t always a disaster. If we only get nice gentle rains, the seeds will come up just fine. However, with our clay-based soils if the weather doesn’t cooperate 100% that trench will pop back open and the crop will suffer. It’s better to take a day or two off and let the soil dry up. Just because the neighbor is planting doesn’t mean you should be in the field, too.
Currently I use a 36-row Case IH 2160 no-till planter on 20-inch spacing. Residue management is critical in no-till. The planter is stock from the factory using Yetter SharkTooth residue managers. They’re pneumatically adjustable from the cab, allowing me to adjust as needed on the go.
My goal for the residue managers is to move approximately 75% of the residue without moving any soil. If you try to move 100% of the residue you’re moving soil and that leaves you vulnerable to erosion. If you aim to move the bulk of the residue out of the way the double-disc openers can cut through the rest without dragging it down into the furrow.
The hydraulic downforce system and pneumatic closing system that came with the planter help us to easily adjust pressure to get the seed to the right depth across the field and firm the soil over the seeds. Despite all the technology, it’s still critical to get behind the planter and make sure everything is going right.
We opted to move from 30-inch rows to 20-inch rows with the purchase of this planter. This lets us spread out the individual plants within the row, giving them 2-3 more inches than if they were planted in 30-inch rows at the same population.
The options of 15-inch or even 12-inch rows were possibilities and had their merits, but we opted for 20-inch rows due to most branded machinery companies making 20-inch corn heads. There are after-market corn heads aplenty, but I want to stick with something that if I have a problem at harvest I can get parts easily and quickly.
Narrowing up our rows has proven a good move. Our first year in 20-inch rows was 2011 and, on average, we’ve seen a 5-10% yield boost compared to wider rows.
Our new planter is capable of variable-rate seeding, too. Going back to our data from soil sampling and yield maps, we vary corn populations from 30,000-36,000 across the field depending on the data and the hybrid we’re using.
When seeding soybeans, we don’t variable rate but push populations to 170,000 seeds per acre in our marginal fields and back the population off to 145,000 per acre on our better ground.
We’ve done a few test plots using 120,000 seeds per acre and found that generally this works well, but if there’s a little bit of hail damage or a variety didn’t quite have the best germination you will lose some yield. As a result, we’re staying at a population of 145,000 to help insulate against the little problems that might arise.
We had been planting soybeans in 15-inch rows prior to getting the new planter, and then obviously made the switch to 20-inch rows. The change hasn’t really made a difference in yields either way, so that’s worked well.
Harvest is another area where impatience and a lack of attention can create problems down the line for no-tillers.
This fall we fought rain at harvest. Though it’s tempting to head to the fields, we opt to wait so we don’t put big tracks in our field and cause compaction that could severely hamper next year’s yields.
It’s best to be patient. The good news is with the soils in our no-till fields are firmer and dry up faster than those that are tilled thanks to years of building up soil structure. That means at both planting and harvest we can get in the field faster when moisture is a problem or others.
An Even Keel. Jim Riesberg and his trusted agronomist combine yield data with information from grid soil sampling to variable-rate applied lime and fertilizer. As a result, yields tend to be more uniform across the field.
Spreading chaff evenly is also important to maintaining nice, even seeding conditions next spring. Today’s combines all have choppers and residue spreaders, but it’s still necessary to check the spread and adjust as necessary.
When harvesting on a windy day, adjustments become even more critical. You want to avoid having chaff blow into the standing crop where it can impact harvest or result in an increasing bulk of residue in one area of the field.
If wind is impacting residue spread, we combine from the other side of the field to make sure the residue is blowing toward the already harvested part of the field.
Despite most of us having no-tilled for decades at this point, my no-till club still gets together to evaluate the most recent changes on our farms. Our most recent venture is cover crops.
Now is a tough time to sell the value of cover crops due to high costs and tough commodity markets. You don’t see a cash result, as cover crops are more about improving soil health.
After years of no-till my soil is already in great shape, making cover crops a tough sell for even me.
However, if I were to take on new acres that weren’t no-tilled, I see cover crops as the fastest way to get those soils in great shape. By working with cover crops now I will know what to do if I’m put in that position.
“I’ve found after 7 years that cereal rye seems to help the most with heavier clay soils…”
For most of the cover crops I’ve experimented with I’ve used aerial seeding. I’ve flown cereal rye with radish or rapeseed onto corn, and oats and radish or rapeseed into standing soybeans. I’ve even flown on some peas.
Most experts say peas must be planted 1-1½ inches deep to grow. In my area I’ve found if you get a good rain they will grow when aerially seeded in the fall, too. It’s fun to play with things and give them a try.
Normally we start seeding covers around Labor Day and do around 125 acres. I generally target acres I feel are a bit marginal, but have experimented on different fields and with different covers to see what works with what soils and what survives the winter.
After 7 years I’ve found cereal rye consistently works and seems to help the most with the heavier clay soils. It’s all about playing around and seeing what works and giving it plenty of time.
Adopting cover crops is similar to adopting no-till. It takes patience. The only way it will work for you is by being dedicated and working through the problems. The first years will be tough, but patience will pay.
I have a friend who lives 5 miles from me. One spring he called me up and asked what I was doing, and I said ‘Planting.’
He was shocked because just 5 miles down the road it was far too wet to be planting. He came to my fields and was shocked to see the soil was completely different.
With no-till, the water had quickly moved into the soil and it was plenty firm and dry enough for me to plant. He had to wait another couple of days before he could get in the field.
I had to wait several years for my soils to get to that point, but the long-term patience means I now often have the advantage.
No-Till Pays Off
I’ve long seen the benefits of no-till on our farm. The savings in labor and soils are obvious. No-till has helped me add value to my own acres and those of my landlords.
A great example is when some ground I rented needed to have the waterways redone. It was a tough sell to get the landlords to do the work, but I assured them that with me as the farmer the investment would be worth it.
In most cases around here, waterways need to be redone every 3-4 years as they silt in with erosion from the fields. With me no-tilling those fields, the new waterways are now 16 years old and don’t need a bit of maintenance. It’s just more proof that no-till is the right move.
I continue to share the results of my farm with others and I do some custom no-till planting for others. I’m hoping what others see on my farm, and on their own, as I work with them will help them see the long-term benefits of the practice.
It’s work, but it works and it’s our living. And it’s the living of those that will come after us, making it even more critical that we do what we can to protect our soils.