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Iowa’s “No-Till” Farmers See Marked Soil Improvement

Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association

No-till farming has taken the agricultural sector in America by storm over the last few years. All over the country, farmers who want to maintain or even increase their annual crop yields more sustainably have begun turning away from the tradition of plowing their fields. 

While many were a bit hesitant to depart from a farming practice that has dominated the field for literally thousands of years, what often followed was a dramatic difference in soil health and crop nutrient density that went above and beyond even the more optimistic expectations. These benefits all come on top of the undeniably positive environmental impact brought on by several factors, including increased carbon sequestration and reduced soil erosion in the long term. 

Like many farmers during the earliest days of this trend, Wayne Fredericks’ turned to no-till out of necessity rather than curiosity. It all started in 1991 when an earlier-than-usual seasonal ice storm caught Fredericks and many other Iowan farmers off guard. His farm was entering its 20th year of operation and was functioning under the traditional plow-heavy understanding for its entire lifespan. “My farmland froze early, and I had not gotten my corn stalks plowed,” said Fredericks, recalling how essential corn stalks were for that season’s rollout, especially for the soybeans that usually followed. “What was I going to do?”

Photo Courtesy Joseph L. Murphy

His predicament led to an attempt to plant the soybeans regardless of the temperature. Under the guidance of his dealer for John Deere equipment, Fredericks began using a drill to bore into the frozen soil, an uneasy decision that would see his farm planting soybeans into untilled fields for the very first time. 

What resulted was nothing short of a miracle for Fredericks and his family.

Despite their numerous concerns, the soybean yields were as strong as ever. There also was virtually zero indication that the accompanying weeds were more prevalent than they would be in fully tilled soil.

Fredericks and his wife Ruth have remained committed to this practice for over three decades. Their 750-acre farm is a shining example of how farmers can maintain profitability without using plows. 

The burgeoning no-till interest of Fredericks and others like him led to an involvement with the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). The local nonprofit dedicates itself to improving soybean demand nationwide and assisting soybean farmers in improving their efficiency and overall crop yields. 

Inspired in part by success stories like Fredericks, the ISA has increasingly become an advocate for no-till farming practices throughout the state. This advocacy ramped up over the last year following the relatively dry conditions that affected farmers worldwide. Among other efforts, ISA writer Ryan Johnson penned an article describing the impressive water-saving effects of avoiding the plow and keeping the soil intact.

Photo Courtesy Joseph Hopper

The organization points to several reasons for local farmers switching their fields. The first chief benefit is eliminating tillage costs, ranging from $15 to $20 per acre for each planting window. The second is the noticeable increase in water retained by the soil.

It reduces stormwater runoff and helps nearby communities avoid adverse environmental effects. 

Other payoffs of no-till farming identified by ISA include the suppression of sclerotinia stem rot (also known as white mold), a simplification of the spectrum of weeds present around crops and a reduction in soil erosion. 

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