We were moldboard plow, disc ripping and basically full tillage on our 700-acre Maple Creek Farms operation in Rock Creek, Minn., until 2013. This was mainly because we’ve got large, granular coarse soil that gets drought prone very quickly. It also compacts very quickly, though it tended to be very shallow. 

I knew there had to be a better way. So, I asked Dad in 2013, ‘What if we just try no-tilling our soybeans?’ That was the first year we had yield mapping in the combine and ultimately, we didn’t any see any difference in no-till vs. conventional tilled fields. But there was a huge difference in our labor investment.

The next year (2014) is where we started to see other benefits. It was one of the worst springs we’d had in decades. We had a lot of 35-degree, rainy days. I remember going into one field and it was like going to the beach and taking your fingers and stirring the sand. It was mush, but if we let the water lap it a couple of times, and hit it, it was firm.

So we went out and no-tilled where we could. By the time we got done, when we pulled up our planting date maps, it looked like a patchwork quilt. That fall, we ended up with average corn, but that was the first year we had 48-bushel soybeans, whereas a lot of our neighbors who did full-width tillage were in the 30-35 bushel range, because they had such heavy ground and ours was already much lighter and better able to handle the moisture.

Starting Strip-Till

In 2015, we built our first strip-till rig. We bought an old Sukup row cultivator and I extended the shank. We attached 8 row units to an old Ag Systems caddy with a Montag dry fertilizer box on it. It worked well, except we realized that for the amount of rocks we have, the unit wasn’t heavy enough. 

We conducted a lot of strip-till field trials that first year for both corn and soybeans. For soybeans, the best cash flow was still no-till with no fertilizer applied because the beans really don’t respond to fertility. We know that. We could argue the soybeans removed some phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), so we have to account for those dollars, but it’s still the most profitable system and we got into the 60-bushel range in some fields. 

“After 1 year of leaving the field fallow and taking two cuttings of hay off because the cows just couldn’t keep up, we did another water infiltration test and it was one of the best plots we had on our entire farm…”

With the strip-tilled soybeans after corn, we had an early frost that hurt, but the they were far enough in the growth stage that still ended up in the 50-bushel-per-acre range.

We decided to just commit to no-till soybeans, and strip-till our corn. But we knew we needed a more robust strip-till machine. A neighbor had some Hiniker row crop cultivator units that were bigger and heavier than what we had. The 8-row unit has a chisel plow shank and already had a nice lead coulter and depth gauge wheel, so all I needed to do was add the row cleaners. I used some receiver hitch-pin tubing and mounted the row cleaner in the middle.

I also modified the brackets that hold the depth gauge wheels by flipping them upside down and lower them. We added berming blades off of our old DMI disc ripper. We have roots and cover crops to do our deep tillage for us now, so that old machine made a great sacrifice to our soil health improvement cause.

There’s enough clearance under the shank to get over the rocks and the berming discs just float under their own weight. I just attached a little piece of jumper chain on either side of the row unit so when we lift up on the headland, those discs don’t fall down. 

For the fertilizer delivery system, we used some old stainless steel milking pipeline that’s great for dry fertilizer application and we still attach it to the Ag Systems caddy and the Montag tank and pull the rig with our John Deere 8450 tractor. We band fertilizer 7-8 inches deep in the strip and plant corn about 2 inches deep so we have a nice safety buffer to protect the seedlings. 

This allows us to follow the strip-till rig with the planter later in the day. We’ve never seen any germination issues or seed burn. 

Bringing Cattle Back

About the same time we got serious about strip-till, we started with cover crops and since then, we’ve looked to reintegrate cows back into our operation as another way to really leverage the benefits of our cash crop rotation and see if we can improve soil health.

We wanted to do some experimentation, so we conducted a baseline water infiltration test in a 30-acre field we planned to leave fallow in 2019. The best test resulted in a one-half inch infiltrating in an hour. In the worst tests — of which there were many — there was still water sitting in the field after 3 hours. So in 2019, we seeded the field with clover and mixed grasses. I trimmed it once at the end of the year to encourage regrowth of the crop, and we bought 9 springer heifers to get bred and really grow our herd. 

After 1 year of leaving the field fallow and taking two cuttings of hay off the field because the cows just couldn’t keep up, we did another water infiltration test and it was one of the best plots we had on our entire farm. 

Our plan is to rotate 30-acre grazing paddocks every 3 years into corn and capture all the nitrogen so then we can leverage those stored nutrients to raise more profitable corn. The fields right next to our current pasture are both corn, and once the combine rolls, we’ll move the cows into those fields to get as much grazing credits off the corn stover as we can and then move them back to pasture for the winter. 

We know we can follow an alfalfa field or a legume with a corn crop and have a very good crop. But we want to find out if we can combine a legume and cattle manure and have a profitable rotation. The objective is to manage these acres to feed the cows so we’re not hauling bales. This would keep money in our pocket. 

When we used to have steers on the farm, we might have $0.25 a day per head into forage costs for 6 months of grazing. When they went to market, we still averaged 2 pounds a day gain. For us to roll our own bales, at maybe as much as a dime a pound, depending on market value, it would have been upwards of $1.40 a day per steer to be on the feed lot just for hay.

People have asked me, ‘How can you set that pasture aside like that?’ I say, ‘30 acres in a $3 corn market? That’s an easy call for me.’ That’s a bale a day. It’s going to be $50 a day that field is saving me by having the cows out there. 

Granted, if I sold the cows, then obviously that wouldn’t work, but since I have cattle and it’s a bad year for corn and soybeans, from July-November, say 150 days, that’s about $7,500 bucks, or $250 per acre on those 30 acres. If I planted corn out there, subtract the direct costs, and I’m not getting anywhere close to that $250. That’s not hard math to do.”