For many farmers, it can take years to make the transition from traditional tillage to no-till practices, often starting with a small field and adding acres each year.
But brothers Andy and Anthony Beck of Waterford, Wis., couldn’t wait that long. They began farming in 2001 after their grandfather died and they purchased his machinery. To get started they used the same tillage techniques they were taught as youngsters, but soon realized they would need to make some changes.
“That first year we lost money. That was really the driving factor. We knew if we were going to farm we needed to find a way to be profitable,” says Andy.
The young farmers — Andy was only 21 at the time and Anthony still in high school — turned to neighbors for advice and learned about no-till from more experienced farmers like Brian Gunderson, who also no-tills corn and soybeans in Waterford, Wis.
- Experiment and learn no-till techniques for yourself — you have to figure out what works on your ground.
- Avoid planting in muddy conditions, get good seed-to-soil contact and make sure your seed trenches are properly closed.
- Older technology can perform just as well as the newer gadgets. Compatibility is key.
“We were friends with Brian and he did help us out. He made us learn it, though. He didn’t just tell us,” says Andy.
The following year, they started by no-tilling a few fields, about 30 or 40 acres. The next year they expanded it to a couple hundred acres. “We realized no-till didn’t yield any less, so after that we just jumped in and made the switch,” Andy says.
The realization hit quickly: With no-till they could save a lot on fuel and labor costs and they didn’t need to maintain the same level of expensive equipment. To complete the transition, they sold their tillage tools and upgraded to better planters and the pair have been 100% no-till ever since.
Success with Corn on Corn
On their 1,000-acre operation, the Becks no-till corn and soybeans plus about 100 acres of hay, which they primarily use to feed the small number of beef cattle they raise. They mostly rotate the beans and corn but do have 180 acres under pivots where they no-till corn-on-corn for several years at a time.
SIMPLE SETUP. Andy and Anthony Beck like to keep their planter setup simple, utilizing Great Plains Terra-Tine row cleaners and Schlagel Posi-Close closing wheels. The row cleaners move their heavy corn residue without displacing soil and the closing wheels ensure good seed-to-soil contact.
Their fields have a range of different soil types and the corn-corn acres are on relatively dry, sandy ground where the pivots offer a nice yield bump on the corn — about 50 bushels more per acre than on unirrigated land. 2018 was a good year and the Beck’s averaged about 235 bushels on their irrigated corn acres. To achieve these yields on their irrigated con ground, they’re planting about 35,000 seeds per acre, whereas on the non-irrigated corn ground they are at 33,000.
“When we get heavy rains, we no longer have water standing around for more than a few hours…” — Anthony Beck
Using standard recommendations based on nutrient removal, they apply a total of 160-170 units of nitrogen (N) on rotated corn, and closer to 200 for corn-on-corn. With the planter, they apply about 15 gallons of 32% UAN in a 2-by-2-inch configuration, along with 4-5 gallons of 6-24-6 in furrow. The balance, also 32%, is sidedressed post emergence.
Soil samples tell them how much phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) they need, which is variable-rate applied in the form of diammonium phosphate (DAP) and potash. While the actual application amount varies from place to place, the Beck’s say that overall they have reduced P and K applications compared to the 400 pounds (200 and 200) they were applying when they started farming, which was essentially a carry-over from what their grandfather had been applying.
DOUBLE DUTY. A John Deere 1590 grain drill serves as the primary implement Andy and Anthony Beck use to no-till soybeans. In 2018, they also used it to drill their first cereal rye cover crop.
“I think that was a normal removal,” Andy says. “But with no-till I don’t think it has to be that high.”
The Beck brothers actually stopped applying P and K for about 5-6 years, when they thought their soil was cycling nutrients. And while their yields didn’t suffer from the absence, they started applying it again after seeing some plant health issues.
“There’s a fair amount of no-tillers who are doing it without commercial fertilizer,” Andy says. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get to that but the only way I know is to just try it.”
While the Becks have taken to no-till, they haven’t stopped making adjustments and they’re no stranger to difficulties.
Their biggest challenge is corn-on-corn ground that produces heavy residue. Over the past few years they’ve changed planter attachments and the stalk rolls on their corn head.
“Doing a lot of no-till acres, you’ve got to find a setup where you can rock and roll without a lot of playing around…” — Andy Beck
They use a 12-row John Deere 7200 planter on 30-inch rows for corn and have tried several different row-unit attachments over the years, most recently settling on the Great Plains Terra-Tine row cleaner and the Schlagel Posi-Close closing wheels. They like the Terra-Tine row cleaner because they find them to be aggressive enough to move the trash without displacing any dirt.
Similarly, they like the Posi-Close closing wheels because these units don’t move the seed and don’t require a lot of adjustments while running. “Doing a lot of no-till acres, you’ve got to find a setup where you can rock and roll without a lot of playing around,” Andy says.
Corn-on-corn is also a challenge during harvest, for which they turn to their Deere s670 combine and Deere 693 corn head.
“Typically on corn we always ran fluted rolls,” Anthony explains. “We didn’t want the trash chewed up too much, but when we started corn on corn we were having trouble moving the trash because some of it was still attached to the root ball and then we have trouble with the row cleaners trying to move it.”
HEALTHY START. Despite a cold, wet fall, Andy and Anthony Beck got their first-ever field of cereal rye drilled in November, 2018. After more cold and wet conditions over the winter, they were happy to see the rye putting on growth this spring and terminated it within a few days of planting soybeans.
They switched to a Calmer corn head, but felt the residue didn’t dry out well enough, so in 2018 they tried Deere knife rolls. At the time of this interview, the jury was still out on whether or not the results were satisfactory.
Getting Into Covers
Last November the Becks got their first cover crop going, having drilled 250 acres of cereal rye after corn, at a rate of 35-40 pounds per acre, using their Deere 1590 drill, which they usually also use for no-tilling soybeans. They plan to terminate the rye with glyphosate within a few days of planting their soybean crop in the spring.
Like many farmers, they’re hoping covers crops will build organic matter and continue to improve their soils. “And maybe, as a bonus, grow a better crop in the process,” says Anthony.
It’s too early to tell if covers will help them achieve those goals, but no-till itself has offered benefits beyond cost cutting. Some of their land is on hilly, rocky ground that was “hard to grow a crop on,” according to Andy.
“When we started farming, on the good ground we’d get 230-bushel corn, probably 180 in an average area, and where the really dry gravel knobs are we’d get 30. Now it’s a lot more consistent and we might get 130 or 150 in the dry areas,” Anthony says. “There’s not the high highs, but there’s also not the low lows.”
They also believe water infiltration has improved. “When we get heavy rains, we no longer have water standing around for more than a few hours and then it’s gone,” Anthony says.