17. Ben Gleason – Soil Health Awareness is ‘Mission Accomplished’ at IA Corn

Iowa Corn has several major goals that drive programs and projects for their sustainability platform:

  1. Protect and improve the land, water, and natural resources
  2. Minimize regulations on farmers that could potentially reduce profitability
  3. Maintain farmers’ social license to operate
  4. Be a leader in sustainability, making sure that sustainability is a part of all programming

Ben Gleason, Sustainable Program Manager for Iowa Corn, gets the opportunity to work for Iowa farmers on all of these goals, leveraging partnerships with different stakeholders to move the needle on sustainability in the agriculture industry.

One area he is focusing on is reduced tillage. Tillage changes are one opportunity for farmers to impact on-farm sustainability and have become more prominent as awareness increases. Gleason says the state isn’t all no-till by any means, but is seeing strip-till gain in popularity as it is often “the best of both worlds” – tillage where you need it and residue everywhere you don’t.

Regarding cover crops, Gleason said, “We have seen a big, big jump in cover crops, which is fantastic. We went from virtually zero acres to about two million acres. I think we’ll be well over that this year with an early harvest that will allow more cover crop acres to get seeded.”

Iowa farmers are also experimenting with other practices, like nutrient reduction wetlands, which Gleason says are effective to manage nitrogen loss.

“We’re making progress. We have got a long way to go. Obviously, our water quality issues didn’t pop up overnight, so we’re not planning to solve them overnight either. But we have got a lot of momentum going, and we would like to keep it that way,” he said.

Iowa Corn also has a history of connecting Iowa farmers with the Soil Health Partnership, with both organizations really stressing farmer-to-farmer, peer-to-peer learning. They believe that works best.

“Soil health awareness is huge now. I think that mission is accomplished. [Soil health is] part of the decision-making process now, I believe,” he said.

Learn more about Iowa Corn’s specific water quality and sustainability programming, as well as how they are facilitating farmer-to-farmer learning during a global pandemic, by clicking on the player above or listening to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

Cover Crop Lessons from an Iowa Farmer: Take Your Time

When Roger Zylstra and his son Wesley started experimenting with cover crops on their central Iowa farm in 2014, they weren’t exactly sure what to expect. They had a goal to improve stewardship of their land and resources but, at the time, didn’t really know where that would take them. Their experiment – cereal rye before soybeans – seemed to be yielding benefits, but they wanted more hard data. So, in 2015, Roger enrolled in an SHP cover crop trial to better understand the impact of this management practice on their farming operation.

Roger and Wesley’s experience with SHP is detailed in a new business case, sharing where they started and what they have learned after conducting their trial for five years. Below are some of the Zylstras’ key learnings. Dig into the full business case to find out more.

Build Soil Health in a Way That Works for Your Farm

In addition to growing corn and soybeans, they also raise hogs on the Zylstra farm. The incorporation of livestock makes manure an important source of nutrients for their cash crops, and it was something Roger and Wesley considered when choosing to implement cover crops.

“We’re working to continue to be competitive with our yields, while striving to improve the health of our soil,” Roger said. “Because we have swine and fall-apply the manure, we think cover crops really help sequester the nitrogen to the soil.”

They chose cereal rye as their cover crop species specifically because of its ability to withstand disturbance caused by injecting manure, recognizing that it bounces back quickly with minimal impact to the stand. Cereal rye also overwinters well, which provides ground coverage and nutrient uptake throughout the fall and spring.

It is Okay to Make Changes Over Time

Roger knows how easy it can be to want to make all the changes at once, but his experience with SHP taught him that it can be valuable to make incremental shifts – evaluating your results and then adapting accordingly.

Here are just a few of the things that have changed in the Zylstras’ approach since 2015:

  • Eliminated use of fall anhydrous and incorporated spring pre-plant and sidedress applications
  • Adjusted cover crop seeding rates
  • Experimented with different methods of cover crop seeding (switching to drilling for a few years before returning to spreading/incorporation with vertical tillage)
  • Moved to 100% liquid application of fertilizer
  • Experimented with planting green

Each of these adjustments from year-to-year allowed them to dial in their system in a way that best met their unique needs around labor, time, and equipment resources. You can read more about the specific reasons for these changes in their business case.

Small Changes Add Up to Real Benefits

By staying committed to building soil health, making incremental changes, and experimenting with different approaches, the Zylstras have seen real benefits to their farming operation. Some of the biggest takeaways include: 

  • Improved nutrient use efficiency – By changing the sources and timing of nitrogen application, they see greater utilization by the crop and reduced leaching of nutrients into the waterways. According to Roger, “We use about the same amount of nitrogen per acre as we did many years ago, but our average [corn] yields have grown from 140-170 bu/acre to 170-200 bu/acre.
  • Increased microbial activity – Results from soil health testing on their SHP field shows that respiration (an indicator of microbial activity) has increased significantly on the cover cropped portion of the field, aiding in an improved rate of residue turnover on those acres.
  • Improved soil structure – The Zylstras credit improvements in soil structure with reducing soil surface compaction during the wet years of 2018 and 2019. In comparison to nearby farms (who faced standing water and ruts in the field), Roger and Wesley experienced fewer equipment tracks and less ponding. At times, it has also allowed them to get into the field a day or two earlier during planting and harvest. 

Digging In

When it comes to building soil health, no two farms are exactly the same. However, there are things we can learn from each other as we experiment, adapt, and experience success. Farmers who leverage manure as a primary source of nutrients can see from the Zylstras’ SHP program one way to implement cover crops and things to take into consideration when getting started. And, no matter what your system looks like, Roger’s advice to take it day-by-day and season-by-season – adjusting your practices over time to find the approach that works best for you and your farm – is something we can all learn from.

15. Lisa Kubik – Taking Consistent, Incremental Steps to Build Soil Health

For Lisa Kubik, SHP Field Manager in eastern Iowa, learning about soil health is a two-way street.

“Honestly,” she says, “Working with SHP, I learn as much from my farmers…as they probably learn from me, which is really unique and really neat.”

One of those farmers is Roger Zylstra from central Iowa, who has been conducting an on-farm research trial for the past five years, and is featured in a new SHP business case. In this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast, Lisa sits down with Senior Director John Mesko to talk about what the Zylstras have been learning and how that information can be used by other farmers.

“There are so many ways to do soil health and improve your conservation on your farm. And there’s really no [one] right way to do it,” Lisa says. “It all depends on your current…operations, how you manage your system. Being open-minded and being flexible is really part of the most important thing when increasing conservation and increasing the soil health on your farm.”

In their discussion, John and Lisa also dive into how her family is implementing soil health practices on their own farm, including reduced tillage, cover crops, and rotational cattle grazing.

Listen to the entire conversation at the link above or subscribe to The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.

Zeb Zuehls

Zuehls Farms is centuries old but has undergone many transitions throughout the years. It was once a very diversified farm with chickens, pigs, and dairy. Then the farm was dairy-only, until about 20 years ago when the family decided to shift their attention to crops. Most recently, Zeb added a small beef herd.

Zeb, his dad and his wife and children now focus on making the land the best they can for the corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and small grains they grow. This means experimenting with cover crops to discover which species will work best in his area, which has a short growing season of about 140 days.

“As part of Soil Health Partnership, we grow cover crops to improve our soils, increase organic matter, and, ultimately, be better stewards of the land,” Zeb said. “I also want to make our land the best I can if my kids choose to farm.”

With heavy rain events the past few years, Zeb says that, since implementing soil health practices, he’s noticed a great reduction in the amount of soil erosion and nutrient loss. He has also noticed improvement in the soil structure. These changes will help him accomplish the goal of leaving the land in the best possible shape for the next generation.

Zeb joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2016. He was already interested in different methods of tillage and implementing cover crops, but SHP has given him a farmer network to share information and the confidence to try “different things that I would have never dreamed of doing.”

“The sky is the limit on soil health. If you don’t try it, you won’t know if it does or does not work,” said Zeb.

SHP Releases Business Case on Benefits of Cover Crops in Enhancing Nutrient Management Strategy

The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) recently released a business case featuring SHP farmers Roger and Wesley Zylstra, whose on-farm research is evaluating incorporation of cover crops into their nutrient management strategy. The business case details how they adapted their management system to meet soil health, yield and economic goals.

“We are working to continue to be competitive with our yields, while striving to improve the health of our soil,” Roger Zylstra said.

The Zylstras, who raise row crops and hogs in central Iowa, joined SHP in 2015. With the help of their SHP field manager, they began an SHP research project with a strip trial evaluating the impact of cover crops in a system that relies on manure as a main nutrient source. They have been collecting data from the field the past 5 years.

“Because we have swine and fall-apply the manure, we think cover crops really help sequester the nitrogen to the soil,” Zylstra said.

By adjusting nitrogen sources and timing, the farm is now using the same amount of nitrogen per acre, but their average corn yields grew from 140-170 bu/acre to 170-200 bu/acre on average.

Additionally, results from soil health testing on the Zylstra’s SHP field trial show that respiration – which is an indicator of microbial activity – has increased significantly on the cover cropped portion of the field. One benefit of that microbial activity has been an increased rate of residue turnover on those acres.

In recent wet years, Roger credits the cover crops with improving soil structure and reducing soil surface compaction. Although difficult to quantify the value of changes in soil structure, it allows them to get into the field sooner, making a difference in getting the crop planted, sprayed and harvested in a timely manner.

The Zylstras have made incremental changes and experimented in order to dial in a system that works for them. To read the entire business case visit www.soilhealthpartnership.org/zylstra.

###

About the Soil Health Partnership
The Soil Health Partnership is a farmer-led initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health practices for economic and environmental benefit. A program of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the partnership extends to more than 200 working farms in 16 states. While building a peer-to-peer network, SHP collects on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on the soil, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line. For more information, visit https://soilhealthpartnership.org.

Media Contact:
Stacie McCracken, SHP Communications Lead,

Benefits & Management Considerations of Strip-till

For generations, farmers have been aggressively tilling fields and seeing success on their farms and in their yields. However, in recent decades, weather changes, economics, and conservation efforts to improve soil health and sustainability have led some growers to move to a no-till system. Often growers categorize themselves as either conventional tillage or no-till. 

However, there is a third option. Strip-till can be the halfway point between conventional and no-till practices, as well as an important step in the transition to a no-till system. Strip-till can provide many of the soil health advantages of no-till, while still providing the tilled seedbed to plant into you get from conventional tillage. 

What is Strip-till?

Strip-till is the practice of tilling the row where the seed and/or fertilizer will be placed, keeping the residue between the rows undisturbed. Depending on the type of machine and the desired depth of fertilizer placement, the deepest part of the strip is between four and eight inches. Strips can be created in the fall after harvest or in the spring prior to planting. Some systems utilize both a deep fall strip tillage with a lighter spring “freshening” of the strip.

Benefits of Strip-till

  • Reduces erosion. Less disturbance and good cover of residue reduces the potential for soil to erode from the field. 
  • Warmer soil in the spring. Removing residue just above where the seed will be planted allows for the soil to be warmed by the sun in the spring before planting. 
  • More precise application of fertilizer. The fertilizer can be applied directly into the soil in the same pass as you move across the field. Strip-till machines can be set up for both dry or liquid fertilizer. Liquid fertilizer requires less horsepower per row to inject than a dry system.
  • Reduces soil compaction. Leaving soil undisturbed allows for soil structure to form and reduced trips across the field minimizes the compacting load on the soil.
  • Saves time. Most strip-till systems rely on one “tillage” pass in the fall and no tillage in the springtime. 
  • Conserves fuel. When compared to conventional tilling, which often results in three to four passes, a considerable amount of fuel can be saved. 
  • Improves soil health. One of the first steps to a healthier soil is reducing disturbance. With less tillage, earthworms, fungi and other soil organisms can thrive in the soil and improve many soil health metrics including soil aggregation.
  • Better adoption of cover crops. By leaving most of the soil undisturbed, it is possible to take a more advanced step toward soil health by allowing a cover crop to grow in between the rows. Strip-till operations can be performed after cover crop application to ensure a clean seed bed for next year’s crop while maintaining cover crop on most of the field.

Management Considerations to Keep in Mind

  • Potential erosion of the strips. In a field with significant down slope, you risk water running down the strips (instead of moving slowly through the residue in the field). This could cause erosion and risk damaging the seed bed. This erosion can be most damaging after planting the crop. Many growers in this situation see an advantage to going full no-till. 
  • Time. A wet year or a delayed harvest can restrict the amount of time available to create a strip, especially after harvest. A back-up plan of either spring strip-till or being comfortable with no-till is desirable in these situations. 
  • Horsepower. Some more aggressive strip-till machines can require a large amount of horsepower per row. These machines can be the most beneficial for removing a compaction layer and fertilizer placement, but lower horsepower units are also available that do less deep tillage.
  • Initial cost. There is an upfront cost of additional or new equipment to transition over to the practice. However, there are a wide variety of strip-till systems available to fit the needs and budgets of a grower and, with advanced accurate auto-steer systems, units do not necessarily need to match planter widths.
  • Guidance: If the strip-till implement matches the planter, guidance is not absolutely necessary; however, in any instance, it is highly desired to have a guidance system to help stay on your strips.  

While the characteristics of the strip you create depends on the season and your region, strip-till can potentially provide the best of both worlds – no-till and conventional tillage.

Ken Rosenow

Ken, Sue and Mike Rosenow are the sixth generation in their family to farm in Oconomowoc, WI on land settled before the Civil War. They grow corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and hay as their cash crops, but have tested a variety of cover crops on the farm as well. 

Peas, radish, berseem clover, sunflower, and cereal rye have all been assessed for their viability as a cover crop on the Rosenow’s Wisconsin farm. Ken Rosenow also favors a mostly no-till management approach on their acres, which he says saves on machinery investment, fuel, and labor.

“I hope that, by planting cover crops, it helps to protect the soil from erosion and to hold the nutrients for the next crop,” Ken said.

The family also believes in science-based nutrient management on their farm. Soil testing and estimating fertility needs of the crops they grow is a key component of their farm management.

Ken joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to learn more about improving water infiltration and cost savings through better soil health.

“We have learned how others are using cover crops and the benefits that can be achieved,” said Ken. Plus, the opportunities to meet with other participants is very valuable.”

Dan Roehrborn

Dan Roehrborn is a fifth-generation farmer, growing corn and soybeans near the Sheboygan River Basin, now managing the same farm that has been in his family for more than 100 years.

Dan grows a mix of barley, clover and radish to improve his soil health and practices no-till in soybean fields and cover crops, varying all his practices based on the field, soil type, and crops grown. He works hard to properly manage nutrients, taking a conservative approach. “We don’t use manure and I don’t want to overspend on fertilizer,” Dan said. Instead, he prefers to take soil samples to keep nutrients in check.

Since 2015, when Dan joined the Soil Health Partnership, he has been learning how to improve soil health on his farm and sharing information with other farmers. In those short years, he’s noticed an increase in organic matter and an improvement in his soil’s capacity to hold nutrients.

“There are many ways to work at improving soil health, but there is also potential for challenges,” Dan said. “These can occur with cover crops, such as too much cover causing excessive moisture or different bugs in the soil.”

Despite the challenges, Dan will continue to try different methods on different soil types, believing it will benefit his farming operation in the long run. And, as he says, “It’s just another learning curve on the farm.”

13. Darrick Steen – SHP Helps Farmers Dig Into Soil Science

Darrick Steen, Director of Environmental Programs for Missouri Soybean and Missouri Corn, says his pathway to an interest in soil health starts with a turkey farm and a father involved in state politics. He grew up watching heated political and regulatory debates around animal agriculture and the environment. Eventually, he found his way to soil health and, as he describes it, “improving and maintaining our soil resources.”

Steen says that Missouri Corn and Soybean primarily work to make farmers aware of the issues and challenges in front of them. In the environmental area, this means helping farmers understand the threats, but also the opportunities to take advantage of. 

One of those opportunities is the Missouri Strip Trial Program, born in the Missouri nutrient reduction strategy, which focuses on the application of cover crops and how to manage cover crops in corn and soybean rotations.

Another is working with the Soil Health Partnership.

“The Strip Trial Program is looking at the application of cover crops, the impact on yield and how to fine tune the use of cover crops. The Soil Health Partnership is diving into the science of what is going on in the soil. There are a lot of questions that need to be answered about soil,” Steen said.

The important questions include: 

  • What are the things in the soil and in the fields that need to be monitored? 
  • What should farmers be paying attention to? 
  • There are too many variables to be focused on everything, so what recommendations will make the biggest impact?

Steen said there is always a little overlap on the programs, but SHP has a unique perspective on the soil science side that is needed to accomplish farmers’ overall sustainability goals.

Some of the farmers Steen works with get concerned that they cannot make changes quickly enough to meet their soil health goals. But Steen’s advice rings true: sometimes the most important things take time.

“I’m confident that the next generation will make some dramatic improvements on the farm and will ensure that we feed our country and feed the world, as well as make our environment a better place,” he said.

Listen in to the rest of this interview above or in your favorite podcast player.