Six years of no-till proved its value in a 48-hour time span last spring for Hawarden farmer Nate Ronsiek (pictured above). A pounding 3-inch rainstorm, followed by a 5-inch downpour the next day, washed away topsoil and created rills and gullies in some area farm fields. But the soil in Ronsiek’s no-till fields held firm.
"I didn’t have a single gully wash out," he said. "It takes a long time to build that soil back up. Anything you can do to save any of that, it’s huge. Just seeing what happened after 8 inches of rain in two nights makes a big difference. There’s no way I’d go back to conventional tillage."
Ronsiek’s conservation ethic was instilled in him at a young age by his late father, Vince, who installed miles of terraces across the hilly western Sioux County farm in the 1980s. The conservation award-winning farm also features windbreaks, grassed waterways and buffer strips, which are among the practices identified in Iowa’s ground-breaking Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The voluntary strategy aims to reduce losses of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus entering Iowa’s waterways.
Those kinds of conservation practices are also smart business, as Ronsiek learned from his dad’s terrace-building efforts decades ago.
"I’m sure glad he did it when he did. Over the years, it’s saved us a lot of topsoil," said Ronsiek, a fifth-generation farmer who raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa. "We’re able to raise a good crop in these hills because we’re holding our water."
Seeing is believing
The 31-year-old gained his passion for no-till farming as a student at Kansas State, where he studied agricultural technology management, ag business and agronomy.
"Seeing all the good things that can happen with no-till at Kansas State convinced me," he said. "There are a lot of benefits that can come from it."
Ronsiek said most of his neighbors have also adopted no-till practices over the years, which runs counter to news reports last week that ethanol is causing farmers to abandon conservation practices. To the contrary, he said the exchange of ideas among farmers often fosters even greater conservation efforts.
"Networking with other farmers is so important if you’re going to try (no-till), just to have somebody to bounce ideas off of," said Ronsiek.
In addition to soil conservation, Ronsiek found economic benefits of reduced tillage after conducting several years of side-by-side comparisons of no-till and conventional tillage test plots as part of Iowa State Extension’s on-farm research program.
"Scientifically, the more I look at no-till, the more I like it," he said. "There was virtually no yield difference between no-till and conventional tillage in the test plots. What I don’t spend on fuel and time for conventional tillage field trips I can invest elsewhere on the farm."
The time and money savings are key factors for Ronsiek, who also has a growing seed dealership for Syngenta’s Golden Harvest and NK brands. Fierce competition for land makes expanding his land base unlikely, so he focuses on improving the productivity of his soil by building organic matter.
He uses grid sampling and analyzes harvest maps to identify areas of his fields that will benefit from additional fertilizer. Just as importantly, the technology identifies poor yielding areas where applying more nutrients isn’t likely to do much good.
"It’s kind of re-allocating your resources," he said. "You might spend the same amount of money, but you’re putting it in the spot where it’s getting the most value. At the same time, you could take a spot that’s not producing anything and still have a net profit by reducing your inputs."
More soil sampling
Just like the neighborhood no-till discussions, Ronsiek said soil sampling is gaining popularity as his neighbors and seed customers seek to improve their soil fertility. He’s covered hundreds of acres taking soil samples for customers this fall.
"It’s taking off faster than I thought it would," he said. "Guys are seeing a lot of good results from it. It’s pretty exciting to see guys start putting the pieces together."
For those who are still skeptical, he compares soil sampling to checking the oil level in a vehicle before adding another quart.
"If you’ve got enough, let’s not put any more on," he said. "There’s a lot of cases where you’ll save money if you just put it in the right spot."
Where fertilizer is needed, Ronsiek prefers to use cattle manure because of its wide-ranging nutrient content. However, even in a livestock-rich area like Sioux County, he said manure is hard to come by as farmers realize its value. So he crunches the numbers to apply the manure where it will do the most good and supplements with commercial fertilizer only where necessary.
"A guy has got to be flexible in these times," said Ronsiek, who with his wife, Rachel, has two sons and a third child due next month. "Farming is a way of life, but if you don’t think about it as a business, it won’t be a way of life for very long."
He hopes sound conservation and smart financial decisions will afford his children an opportunity to carry the family farm into a sixth generation.
"I’d love to see those guys be able to farm too, if they want to," he said. "I want to leave something for them, like my dad did for me."