Bob Lynch never liked moldboard plowing. When the Gilmore City-area farmer started implementing more conservation tillage on his family’s land more than 20 years ago, however, his father wasn’t comfortable with leaving "trash" on top.

"My conservation journey started with ridge tilling about 80 or 160 acres," said Lynch, president of the Conservation Districts of Iowa. "When my corn yielded 10 bushels per acre better than my dad’s that first year, his message to me about conservation tillage was clear. ‘I don’t like the way it looks, but you better start farming my land that way too.’"

Lynch has been challenging conventional wisdom ever since on his family’s Century Farm. He and his son, Jay, who began adopting a no-till/strip-till system more than seven years ago, have discovered that the key to higher yield potential, enhanced soil tilth and effective conservation revolves around soil health.

Don’t call it dirt, either. "Dirt is on your hands. Soil is where you plant," said Bob Lynch, who served on the Humboldt Soil and Water Conservation District for more than 15 years.

Here are the Lynch family’s top seven tips to enhance conservation and soil health:

Start small

If you’re interested in trying strip till or no till, for example, you don’t have to switch all your acres in one year. Start with one field and grow from there, said Bob Lynch, who works a 10-inch strip and leaves 20 inches in between in his 30-inch row strip-till system.

The Lynches also inject dry phosphorus and potassium about 4 to 6 inches deep with their strip-till machine. Along with the many conservation benefits of strip-till, its time-saving advantages appeal to Jay Lynch, a Syngenta seed advisor who farms 1,500 acres with his father and provides custom strip-till services.

"Strip-till means I don’t have to worry about fieldwork in the spring," he said. "It frees me up to deliver seed and then jump in the planter and go."

Plant cover crops

The Lynch family started using cover crops in 2012 on 140 acres of prevented-plant land. Since then, cereal rye has become the main cover crop in the Lynch’s area. "If you have cattle, using cover crops is a no-brainer," Bob Lynch said. Cover crops also play a useful role on row-crop farms to protect the soil, manage water runoff and help control weeds.

Timing is the key to success. "We fly on our cover crop at the end of August or early September, which gives the rye a month or month and a half to start growing," Bob said.

The Lynches terminate the cover crop with glyphosate a day before they plant. "Planting into a cover crop is like going through warm butter," Bob said. Just don’t terminate the cover crop too early. "If you do, you’ll have a wet, matted mess," he added.

Let earthworms work

Earthworms can be a farmer’s best friend, from helping aerate the soil to providing a source of nutrients from the worms’ castings. Promoting a healthy ecosystem for worms and micro-organisms in the soil starts with reduced tillage and involves a mindset switch. "A friend described it this way: ‘I’m not a farmer. I’m a biological manager,’" Bob Lynch said.

Watch for surprises

Enhanced soil health means more organic matter and improved water-holding capacity.

"When there’s a 1- to 2-inch rain, the water absorbs into our soil profile rather than running off the land," said Bob, whose fields contain Clarion/Webster/Nicollet soils.

Maximize every acre

"I learned early on that you need to get big or figure out a way to maximize returns on every acre if you’re going to survive in farming," said Jay, 37, past president of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau. "I break down every individual farm to see how we can fine-tune management practices like late-season nitrogen side dressing and focus on conservation to make the most of every acre."

Learn from others

Bob Lynch encourages growers to work with their local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to discuss options for adding more conservation on their acres.

For the past several years, the Lynches have also been meeting regularly throughout the year with other conservation-minded farmers in the area who are willing to question current management practices and never stop asking, "Is there a better way?"

"Find people you can bounce ideas off of," Jay said. "With all the technology available today, it’s exciting to see what’s next and see how we can improve."

Conservation philosophy

A spirit of continuous improvement contributes to long-term success.

"If you never try something different, how do you know if you’re maximizing your investment on every acre?" Bob Lynch said. "My intent is to keep learning, protect our soil and have this land actively farmed by future generations of my family."

Maulsby is a freelance writer in Lake City.