Editor's Note: The following guest blog is a letter from Emmetsburg, Iowa, farmer Larry Neppl to Strip-Till Farmer editor Frank Lessiter in response to his article, "Ridge-Till Paves the Way for Strip-Till." 

The title of your recent article that appeared on the Strip-Till Farmer website, “Ridge-Till Paves The Way For Strip-Till” could not have been any more on target.

For over 30 years, I managed farms professionally in northwest and north central Iowa. Decades ago at a meeting I heard Ernie Behn from Boone, Iowa, talk about ridge-till and I quickly became hooked. 

Eventually, two-thirds of the farms I managed for absentee landowners switched over to ridge-till. I didn’t force my farm operators to farm this way, but I educated them with facts, figures and the experiences of others farming this way and they decided to change. 

There were three main reasons we moved to ridge-till: Soil and water conservation, an environmentally-friendly reduced tillage system that required less fertilizer and pesticides, improved soil health and it led to economic benefits. Here’s why ridge-till was a success on these Iowa farms:

1 Leaving crop residue on the surface without tillage kept soil on the fields instead of blowing away or running off.

2 Based on the research done by George Rehm and others at the University of Minnesota, we banded half rates of P and K fertilizer in the ridge right where the crop would be planted. This made these nutrients more immediately available to the plants and we avoided wasting fertilizer by applying it where roots would not be growing. 

We banded our herbicides using half as much as when broadcasted and relied on the ridge-till cultivator for weed control while building the ridge for the next year’s crop. 

We applied about 30 pounds of N in the band in the fall that came with the P as 18-46-00, applied 15-20 pounds of N as a carrier with the herbicide band at planting, and then side-dressed the remaining N with the cultivator. These recommendations were based on the late spring nitrate testing developed by Fred Blackmer at Iowa State University. 

Even back in the 1980s and 1990s, we applied less than 1 pound of N per bushel of corn produced. Therefore, we were losing less N, P and pesticides to the environment. 

We were also the first ones to use controlled traffic in our fields. Randall Reeder and Randy Wood at Ohio State University had researched compaction. They found subsoiling and v-ripping loosened the soil, but the first trip over the field in the spring erased 85% of that improvement, so we knew we were on the right track.

One of my operators in 30-inch rows widened his single rear tractor tires out to straddle four rows, which matched the same two rows where the combine tires went in order to keep wheel traffic in only 2 of the 8 rows by having only 25% traffic subject to compaction. We stayed away from dual tractor tires as the Ohio research showed severally limited root growth in the rows between the dual wheels.

Because we were only doing two cultivations as tillage, we were burning less organic matter and improving the health of the soil. This resulted finding many more earthworms as documented by work done by Eileen Kladiviko at Purdue.

Machinery costs were less because less tractor horsepower was needed and we didn’t need the tillage equipment. Fuel needs were considerably less than conventional tillage. 

Once while speaking at a meeting in Schribner Neb., a young farmer told a story about of his fuel supplier asking at the end of the year if he was upset with him and the young man said, "No, why?" The supplier had noted that the farmer had only bought about half as much fuel from him this year and assumed the farmer was buying from another dealer somewhere else. 

The young farmer explained how he had switched to ridge-till and didn’t need as much fuel. 

Ahead of the Times

Fewer man-hours were needed by the operators without all the fall and spring tillage. And since we had cut our fertilizer and chemical use, we were saving more money with a greater net returns.

When I explained what we were doing to these farm owners, they were more than happy with the way their farms were being managed and operated.

Over the years I spoke at many Midwestern states promoting ridge-till. This included speaking a number of times at the annual National Ridge-Till Conference hosted by Fleischer Manufacturing, the New York State Fair and in Canada. 

I also spoke twice at the Ohio State Research Farm on behalf of Randall Reeder along with their annual conservation winter seminar. 

Our farm management company was recognized for our conservation efforts as the outstanding conservation farm management company in 1989 by the National Association of Conservation Districts.

As you can see, what we were doing is basically what you were saying in your strip-till vs. ridge-till article. And we’re still farming this way today. After my wife’s parents died, she and her three siblings inherited the farm where she grew up in northwest Iowa. The other three were not interested in owning the land and we purchased their shares in 2001. 

Around 2012, I started studying, reading and attending meetings and watching webinars about cover crops, strip-till and no-till. I discussed this with our young farm operator, but he was set on full-width tillage farming and was not interested in what I wanted to do.

In 2015, I found a 33-year-old farmer who was an agriculture graduate of Iowa State University who had been farming with these same regenerative farming methods for about 7 years. We rented the farm to him and couldn’t be happier. We are farming this way for the same reasons listed above on why we were ridge-tilling. We were just ahead of our time.

So, yes, ridge-till was a precursor to strip-till in many ways as you pointed out in the website article. I never felt threatened by growers trying no-till. They were struggling with wet soils in our area and by the fact that planters at that time were a long way from where they are today in being successful in planting into residue. 

At a Canadian conference I pointed out that Jim Kinsella and other no-tillers in Illinois were starting to band fertilizer in the row and build berms just like we had been doing for a number of years. So yes, they were learning from us ridge-tillers how to better no-till in the wet soils with residue present.

I enjoy reading your daily no-till, strip-till and cover crop emails as I am always searching for new ideas and better ways even in my old age. You are doing a great job of promoting the way farming needs to change. In addition, I have been a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa for 36 years and that great organization has also been very valuable for learning.

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