Saving the soil with strip-tillage

Russell farmer cuts his fuel, equipment costs

Photo courtesy of Dan Taveirne

RUSSELL — Back in the 1990s, Dan Taveirne started to experiment with no tillage on his corn and soybean fields, but he quickly discovered it just wouldn’t work in the cold southwest Minnesota climate.

Organic farming also piqued his interest.

“There are some organic farmers up right around Marshall,” he said. “They have to rely on a lot of tillage. Some of our fields are highly erodible, and to be in compliance with the soil conservation, we have to leave so much residue on top of the ground.”

His concern for soil health and erosion was his motivation to not give up on modifying his farming techniques. He read articles on strip-tillage in some farm magazines. While most of the farms profiled in the magazines were in Illinois and Indiana, he said he was still curious on what strip-tillage could do for his fields. So he started experimenting with it.

Taveirne couldn’t consult with his neighboring farmers who were all using conventional tilling.

“There wasn’t anyone around. My brother and I went to Albert Lea to some type of meeting the Soil Conservation had put on and there were a couple speakers from Illinois. I learned a little bit there. We didn’t have the Internet back then,” he said.

“We did a lot of research in magazines and stuff like that and experimented on our own. There were some things that didn’t work so well. We modified some things.”

Eventually, Taveirne got the results in saving the soil he was looking for.

“There’s a lot of erosion and in (strip till) there are less passes through the field and less fuel being used — less labor. One of the biggest challenges is how to manage all the residue. It tends to build up after a few years. In this part of the country, obviously in the winter, it doesn’t decay. It’s just frozen,” Taveirne said.

Strip tillage is a soil conservation system that uses a minimum tillage. According to Agriculture.com, farmers practicing strip-tilling will till narrow 6- to 12-inch-wide strips between rows. Fertilizer is often injected into the strip and tilled strips correspond to planter row widths of the next crop.

Agriculture.com also said during the next spring, seed is planted into the tilled strips and farmers normally strip-till in fall after harvest, but it can be done in the spring before planting.

Taveirne admits most farmers in this region do conventional tillage.

“Typically, they do a fall tillage pass and in the spring they will do another tillage pass before they plant. I’m still doing a spring tillage pass, but it’s only a narrow strip. The area between the strips, I don’t ever touch that,” he said.

Taveirne is happy with the results and has no plans on changing his tillage process.

“Pretty much eliminated most of the soil erosion from water and wind. One of the guys in our NRC (Natural Resources Conservation) office told other farmers to drive fast by our field because there is no erosion. When heavy rains come in the spring and summer, you probably notice a lot of soil in the road ditches and river banks. What we are doing is really saving the soil a lot. You don’t have to have the tillage — bigger tillage equipment. You don’t have the higher horsepower tractors,” he said.

“Typically, most farmers have the higher horsepower tractors to do that fall tillage. So you eliminate a lot of fuel and expense on equipment.”

Taveirne is also pleased with the health of his soil. He has seen a lot more biological activity.

“The earthworm population has exploded,” he said. “For quite a few years we had issues with all that residue. It was getting to be so thick you couldn’t hardly move. The worms are eating too fast. But that means we have very healthy soil.”

While most of his neighboring farmers still do conventional tillage, Taveirne said he has received compliments over the years and he’s noticing a few more farmers giving strip tilling a try.

“A few guys around Marshall are trying to do more strip tillage. It depends on the area — the soil types. You get more toward Jasper and Sioux Falls you see a lot more of it,” he said.

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