Do you have less disease in your crops than you did 20 years ago? Are you applying less fertilizer than 20 years ago? Can you survive the next five years with today’s commodity prices and your current costs?
If you cannot answer “yes” to those questions, Bryan Jorgensen says you had better figure out how to reduce or eliminate tillage and boost soil health.
Jorgensen, co-owner of Jorgensen Land and Cattle Partnership, Ideal, S.D., was the keynote speaker at the recent Conservation Tillage Conference hosted by North Dakota State University and University of Minnesota Extension services.
“I don’t believe a corn-soybean rotation with tillage is sustainable,” he said.
Jorgensen Land and Cattle has reduced the amount of applied fertilizer 30% to 60% since converting to 100% no-till and focusing on soil health. It has adopted a diversified rotation, is planting cover crops on much of its cropland and is grazing cattle or spreading manure on nearly all its cropland at some time during the year. Together, all of these measures are improving the health of the soil and improving the bottom line.
“The key is feeding the soil first,” Jorgensen said.
More farmers trying
At the conference, more than 330 participants heard from several farmers who are trying to answer “yes” to Jorgensen’s questions. Dan Forgey, manager of Cronin Farm, Gettysburg, S.D., said their costs have dropped and their yields have risen with their conversion from a wheat-fallow rotation and conventional tillage to a diverse crop rotation, no-tillage and cover crops. Their corn yields have gone from 70 bushels per acre to 155 bushels per acre. Spring wheat yields were 35 bushels per acre. Now they are 75 bushels per acre. Winter wheat used to yield about 50 bushels per acre; now it produces 90 bushels per acre.
NO-TILLER: Bryan Jorgensen (center) leads a table talk discussion at the Conservation Tillage Conference about steps to take to improve profits by focusing first on soil health.
“We grow 15 different crops today, not just one or two,” Forgey said.
Forgey says he works to find markets for every one of the crops.
This year, they planted full-season cover crops on cropland around the farm’s cattle lots where they winter 850 head each year. The cattle grazed the cover crops for part of the winter.
“It think we will make more money on that cropland by wintering cows on it than by growing a cash crop on it, plus we will be adding manure to the soil, which will increase the organic matter and biological activity,” Forgey said.
Cronin Farms was recognized as South Dakota’s 2016 Leopold Conservation winner.
Rudy Dotzenrod, Wyndmere, N.D., said his family is seeing “lots of pluses” from the trip tillage they have been doing for the past seven years. Strip tillage has made it possible for them to eliminate three of the four passes they had been doing to till the soil in the fall, apply fertilizer and prepare the seedbed in the spring. Now they put down all the fertilizer they need for corn when they build strips in the fall and then only plant in the spring.
The soil temperature in the tilled strips is 5 to 7 degrees F higher than the untilled area between the rows, which helps corn get a faster start in the spring than in no-till fields in their area, Dotzenrod said.
Jack Weber strip-tills corn and no-tills soybeans and wheat near Hardwick, Minn., which is near the Minnesota-South Dakota border. He’s been so impressed with strip-till and no-till yields and cost savings that he sold all of their tillage equipment. He turns cattle out on his crop ground in the fall to graze residue and cover crops. He bale-grazes cows on cropland through part of the winter.
Doug Toussiant said he and his sons Nick and Brad, Wahpeton, N.D., are able to no-till corn, soybean, wheat and sunflowers successfully in the southern Red River Valley by planting cereal rye as a cover crop to use up the excess moisture they have been having in recent years. The cereal rye is also helping reduce weed pressure.
Several speakers at the conference said that cover crops may be the best way to control herbicide-resistant weeds and to prevent other resistant weed populations from developing.
Jorgensen said there are three basic rules to follow to improve soil health:
1. Don’t remove too much residue, whether by tillage or grazing.
2. Avoid growing low-residue crops, such as soybeans and sunflowers, back to back.
3. Use livestock to graze crop residue and cover crops, or apply manure to cropland.