When Dean Stromer looks across his strip-tilled fields this time of year, the distinctive stripes remind him of a lesson he learned more than 40 years ago.
“When I took Dr. Joe Stritzel’s soils 101 class at Iowa State University in the early 1970s, he held up a beaker filled with soil and emphasized that it’s always called soil in his class. The only time it is called dirt is when it’s not in its proper place.”
Stromer favors strip tilling to keep soil in its proper place in his Hancock County fields, rather than in the ditches or nearby Iowa River. He expanded his use of his 8-row strip-till implement to cover nearly all his acres in the fall of 2013.
Strips are tilled about 10 inches deep, leaving some residue on the surface to hold soil in place while still allowing a cleared space for the seed bed.
Strip till is catching on in Stromer’s area, growing from no acres just a couple years ago to approximately 1,800 acres today. Strip tilling also makes spring field work easier, added Stromer, who didn’t do any field cultivating last spring. “It’s more fun to be planting rather than field cultivating.”
Strip till is one of the many conservation practices Stromer has implemented on his farm to protect soil and water quality while maintaining yield potential.
He and his sons Daniel, 35, and William, 30, are always looking for better ways to protect the environment while maximizing yields on their 900 acres of corn and soybeans.
Stromer, a Hancock County Farm Bureau member, has many good reasons to focus on conservation, from his children and grandchildren, who are the fifth and sixth generations of his family to live in the area, to the Iowa River, which flows within two miles of his family’s Century Farm. “I don’t want the government to mandate our farming practices,” said Stromer, who has served as a Hancock County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) commissioner for nearly 20 years. “We can put conservation in place voluntarily, and there are programs available to help.”
Stromer has used the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to implement new management practices on his farm. When he began by looking for ways to better manage his nitrogen (N) investment, he signed EQIP contracts in 2006 on three plots totaling 320 acres.
Since then, Stromer has used late-spring soil N tests, grid soil sampling, stalk nitrate tests and other tools to track his crops’ nutrient removal rates. “I want to know if I’m putting on too much fertilizer or not enough,” said Stromer, who is also using variable-rate technology to manage nutrients more effectively and boost his yields.
The Stromers apply phosphorus and potassium when they strip till in the fall. Stromer has not applied nitrogen in the fall for 20 years and doesn’t apply any at pre-plant, although he does use some starter fertilizer at planting. Later in the growing season, he side-dresses N, starting when the corn crop is a few inches tall until it’s about waist high. He also uses liquid N as a carrier for his herbicide application.
“Spoon feeding” the crop in this manner reduces trips across the field, which not only saves fuel and time but also reduces soil compaction. Including strip tillage in the system contributes to better soil tilth and more earthworm activity.
“When you get earthworms working for you, you get a lot of benefits,” said Stromer, who noted that the tiny creatures help aerate the heavy, wet Clarion, Nicollet and Webster soils that are common on his farm. Strip till also enhances the soil tilth, added Stromer, whose fields include tile drainage. “Your drainage improves when your soil isn’t compacted.
People have asked if I added tile on the end rows, because they noticed that there’s no water standing there.”
Carrying on a tradition
Finding new ways to care for the land is a tradition for the Stromer family, who have lived and farmed in the area since the 1880s. In the 1960s, Stromer’s father, Harold, began installing filter strips on his fields. He also added a farm pond in 1962, thanks to the help of government cost-share dollars.
“Dad was ahead of his time,” said Stromer, who has farmed full time since he graduated from Klemme High School in 1972. “While he hunted and trapped, he just enjoyed seeing wildlife on the farm, too.”
Enjoying nature is also important to Stromer, who recalled walking to the Iowa River to fish when he was a boy. Today, when he drives by his fields near the river, he takes a broader view of the ecosystem. “Look at these two beautiful hooded mergansers on the water,” said Stromer, pointing to two ducks near the bridge. “I want to protect soil and water quality, and I don’t want the Iowa River to look like chocolate milk.”
Jim Frederick, a retired NRCS assistant state conservationist from Sac City, appreciates Stromers’ commitment to conservation. “Dean is an innovator, and he works to make things better. Farmers like Dean show that a voluntary approach to conservation like the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy can work.”
Stromer encourages farmers to keep looking for ways to incorporate practical, effective conservation measures that work for their acres. “There’s a lot to learn, but there are a lot of resources to help you.”