Extension News

'Not Your Father's Tillage' featured at Farm Progress Show


AMES, Iowa -- If you asked members of Generation X to define tillage, their answers will differ from their father’s or grandfather’s. Today’s forms of tillage are not limited to the moldboard or chisel plow. The trend to expose Iowa’s black soil is going by the wayside in an effort to retain the nutrients held underneath. Doing this practice “because that’s the way Dad did it” is not acceptable anymore.

Today’s generation of farmers are thinking differently. They are feeling the pressures of being green, dealing with high fuel and feed prices, and trying to balance the books amidst it all.

Iowa Learning Farm (ILF) farmer-cooperators Gary Nelson and his son Dave are prime examples of how changing perspectives and practices between generations can work successfully. Thirty-something Dave Nelson recently returned home to farm with his dad, but wanted to try a new technique he’d worked with in his previous career with Monsanto—strip-tillage. Gary was reluctant to try it but agreed. Now, after years of moldboard and chisel plowing, Gary has come around.

The Nelsons are tenants of the Smeltzer Demonstration Farm, rural Otho, and have fully adopted no-till and strip-till on the farm. They have seen the short-term benefits and are able to predict the long-term results of high residue and increased organic matter and nutrients on their farmland.

The Iowa Learning Farm project backed Dave up with proof, which also helped Gary change his thoughts. “The research we have been doing with the Iowa Learning Farm is looking under the soil surface and evaluating what’s going on when you change tillage practices. So we’ve taken this farm and changed from a full tillage approach to 100 percent strip tillage program for this coming fall,” said Gary.

The ILF exhibit at the Farm Progress Show will focus on strip-tillage, a next-best approach to no-till. While many farmers aren’t ready to make a full commitment to no-till, strip-tillage is a fine alternative, marrying the best aspects of conventional tillage with the benefits of no-till. In the fall, the strip-tiller creates strips of exposed soil, broken up by a coulter and shank, and moves surface residue between the strips. In the spring, the strip of exposed soil warms and dries faster than the rest of the field, making this system ideal for some Iowa soil types. The added fertilizer is applied only to the exposed row, keeping weeds at bay.

 “When I came home to farm back in the early 1970s, I brought with me the value and return on investment of spreading dry fertilizer for corn,” Gary recalled.  “I now watch my son come back to the farm and see this technological approach he brings with him.  It is interesting to see the generations of farmers bringing different things to the table.”

“Our dads taught us to drive big tractors, blow black smoke and pull big implements really deep,” said Dave. “Going to a more conservation program, we’re not doing that big horsepower operation; we’re not driving the tractor as much.  What we are doing is saving hundreds of dollars on fuel, labor, and machinery, and at the same time creating a healthier soil profile to yield bigger crops.  At first I wondered if strip tillage would be a fad, but economics and technology are helping us to perfect this system for a long term program on our farm.” 

The Iowa Learning Farm will be in several places at the Farm Progress Show: within the Iowa State University hoop building on Central Avenue, which will include an outside display featuring strip-tiller and an area of strip-tilled land so visitors can see the technique up close. Visitors also will be able to talk with the Nelsons and other ILF cooperators who practice strip-tillage. The rainfall simulator will be demonstrated regularly as part of Conservation Central, which will be next to the ISU display.

The Iowa Learning Farm project is a grassroots approach to promote ways in which all Iowans can have an active role in protecting and enhancing Iowa’s natural resources.  The Iowa Learning Farm is a partnership between the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University Extension, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; and in cooperation with Conservation Districts of Iowa and the Iowa Farm Bureau.


Contacts :


Carol Brown, Agronomy, (515) 294-8912, cbrown1@iastate.edu