Keith Schwandt’s neighbors might see some things that seem out of the ordinary — such as a backhoe digging in his cornfield in July or red flashlights dancing among the rows at 3 a.m. But these occurrences are just part of Schwandt’s quest to better understand his farming operation.

Schwandt farms near Webster City, Iowa, in the Boone River and South Fork (Iowa River) watersheds, and he participates in the Iowa Soybean Association’s Boone River Watershed Project and the CEMSA (Certified Environmental Management Systems for Agriculture) program.

He is working with Gary Hammitt, ISA agricultural environmental specialist, to improve the efficiency and performance of his farm. Hammitt has helped him with troubleshooting in-field concerns, planning and testing to validate his practices. Schwandt says ISA’s assistance in evaluating practices like strip-till would help many farmers in his area.

“One of the best things farmers around here could do is accept Gary Hammitt’s challenge to go out and do 40 acres of strip-till beside their conventional tillage,” Schwandt says. “Gary can help them rent a machine or contract the work, so they don’t have to invest to run the experiment.”

Schwandt says he got interested in strip-till as a way to reduce tillage time and cost.

“A few years ago, I told my dad I’m not going to do as much tillage when he’s gone — there’s got to be a different way to farm,” Schwandt says. “But after thinking about that, I thought I should start trying new ideas now, while I’ve got his 40 years experience standing by me.

“He agreed to it, so we got started with a 12-shank in-line ripper. In the fall, we put the wings up and pulled eight shanks at 18 inches deep to break up hard pan. In spring, we put the wings down and ripped 12 rows with a tank behind the unit, and we applied liquid nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the standing rows.

"Then we came back and planted in that, and it was one of the best crops we ever had. The roots were huge. They went straight down. Everything about it made a lot of sense, so we did that for a couple years. Since then, we’ve moved to a 24-row unit — we are practicing controlled traffic patterns to reduce compaction so the 24-row unit matches up with our 24-row planter.”

Schwandt says putting fertilizer below the corn drives the root deeper and ensures that it is available.

“I spend so much money on fertilizer, I want it right under the plant, where the corn plant can find it and use it,” Schwandt says.

Schwandt says the changes in management are causing changes in the soil.

“When we moved from full-width tillage to strip-till, we also switched from anhydrous ammonia to 32%, and there was an explosion of earthworms and nightcrawlers in the soil,” Schwandt says. “I think because we leave last year's row in place, the worms, nightcrawlers and bacteria are left undisturbed and can graze on the residue. They’re kind of like the livestock people don’t see.

“One night I couldn’t sleep, and it was just about done raining. So I went out to the field, got on my hands and knees with a red light, and I started looking at the dirt and watching the worms. I watched this night crawler stretch out from a hole and pull all kinds of stuff toward him and into the hole. I couldn’t believe it.

"Maybe the neighbors think I’m nuts, but that’s how you learn and figure this stuff out.”

Schwandt also digs holes in the field in the middle of the growing season to better understand how the soil works.

“I’ve dug holes so that I can see what’s happening under the surface of the soil,” Schwandt says. “I’ve seen parts of tassels, deep worm holes, root structure — all of it is there. When you see it, you begin to better understand it.”

Schwandt says ISA’s technical assistance has been helpful in measuring the effect of his management on profitability and the environment.

“I don’t know exactly how to put a dollar figure on it yet — that’s what we’re trying to do,” Schwandt says. “But I’m looking at my crops and at the results I’m getting, and it seems like a good thing to me.”