Fall tillage in the upper Midwest

Why is fall tillage so common in the upper Midwest? The reasons I am familiar with are the following: (1) the soil warms up faster in the spring, (2) it’s convenient to be able to pull into the field in the spring and plant rather than having to do any tillage, (3) tillage incorporates the corn stubble into the soil, (4) tillage “fluffs up” the soil and breaks up compaction, and (5) it looks good to “button-up” all the field work in the fall and go in to the winter with all work done.

What has made it possible to get all this work done in the fall? Fifty years ago, farmers might be lucky to get the harvest in, much less finish with tillage. The reason is that today with larger, faster equipment we can tear through the acres much faster. For example, my neighbor chisel plows corn stalks with a Steiger-Case IH quadratrack that packs somewhere between 370-620 horsepower.


Moldboard plowing corn stalks on October 19, 2016 near Wells, Minnesota. This John Deere is about a 400 horsepower tractor.

So what could be wrong with fall tillage? Well, the scientists tell us the following: (1) fall tillage allows nitrate and phosphorus to flow into the watersheds (nitrate flows with tile water and phosphorus adheres to soil particles and flows with surface erosion, and (2) tillage increases soil erosion, both by wind and water, since it leaves the topsoil exposed to the elements for approximately six months.

With an alternative “tillage” system, cover crops, we retain nutrients and reduce erosion greatly. Additionally, we suppress weeds and increase organic matter on the farm. Since fall tillage would destroy the cover crop in the fall, there is no need for the large horsepower tractor on the farm. Instead, the cover crop is either seeded by plane into standing crops or seeded with a drill and tractor after harvest. If corn is the next crop, the anhydrous ammonia can be applied the following spring rather than in the fall in the bean stubble as it is done conventionally. Farmers may need a heavier no-till ready planter to plant into the cover crop residue. One example is the Kinze planters. Other companies offer suitable planters as well.


This brown mustard cover crop was seeded September 14, 2016 by plane. After 34 days we have 3 inch root growth on this mustard plant. The mustard will winter kill and the cereal rye that was seeded in the same mix, will continue to grow until planting time. In this way we have living roots in the soil for 12 months a year.

Farming the sun

After two and half years of making a little over 25% of my electricity from a 6-panel PV array, we decided to bump up our production significantly. On June 30 we went online with an additional 18 panels. From July 5 to August 5, with both arrays producing electricity, we made 1275 kWh. My monthly average usage over the last two years is 770 kWh. That gives us an average daily usage of 25.66 kWh. With my new array, I averaged 42.5 kWh/day. In the months of June and July I did not produce enough to satisfy my usage since I had a house full of family with significant demands on hot water (dishwasher, washing machine, showers) and on hot days, the air conditioning. However, on an annual average, we should be producing at least 85-90% of our usage.

24 panels_07132016

Our Friend Donald E. Laughlin (Don was a life-long Quaker Friend) passed away on August 19, 2016. Don wrote a simple, straightforward, and powerful letter (he actually dictated it to others since he was not able to write at that time), to Warren Buffet, the billionaire investor sage of Omaha. Buffet’s portfolio includes MidAmerican Energy, a very large wind energy producer in Iowa. Why would Don, an engineer and inventor, do that? Don was a long-time advocate of renewable distributed energy and therefore urged Buffet to support not just his own renewable energy projects, but also distributed energy projects that individuals build at their own homes. Here is Don’s letter as published in the Des Moines Register on August 9, 2016:

An open letter to Warren Buffett on solar power

Don Laughlin 4:59 p.m. CDT August 9, 2016

Note to readers: Don Laughlin has worked on renewable energy for decades — and lived it. He put up a wind turbine at his country home near West Branch, later moving to Iowa City and filling the roof with solar panels. In his final days, this advocate is pushing his message forward. Now unable to write by hand, he spoke this week of his regret at not sending a letter to billionaire Warren Buffett to make MidAmerican Energy more friendly to rooftop solar. Distributed generation is the issue — helping homeowners get a better return on their solar investment, which MidAmerican has opposed. In Don’s usual positive approach to a contested issue, he dictated this letter from his nursing home bed. It’s a letter to Warren Buffett, but to all of us as well.

— David Osterberg, Mount Vernon, and Nathan Shepherd, Iowa City

Dear Mr. Buffett,

My name is Don Laughlin. I’ve worked in developing solar power for years. I’m also one of your company’s (MidAmerican Energy) customers.

First, I want to compliment you for the great deal of wind power that MidAmerican has built and is continuing to build. One area where your good renewable work has not penetrated, however, is distributed renewable energy. Solar photovoltaic panels installed on rooftops are a great untapped source of electricity. If you were to change your company’s policy to encourage distributed generation, you would allow your customers to be part of the solution to climate change.

I recently read in the Atlantic Monthly about your influence on your children’s philanthropies. I admire your son Howard and his important work on eliminating hunger in the world. Please encourage him to remember the potential advantages of distributed electricity to help eliminate hunger in Africa. At the same time, you, perhaps more than others, are in a great position to help some electric customers in our country reduce the terrible effects of climate change, which makes African farming much harder.

I am not able to hand-write this letter myself because of a recent stroke, and at 93 I am nearing the end of my life on this planet. As a parting message, I want to encourage you in the strongest terms to use your influence to make distributed solar energy a major source of electricity at all your companies and in Howard’s foundation work. You are both in a position to change the world. Please use your influence.

— Don Laughlin of Iowa City”


Soil testing 101

We harvested our first crop of alfalfa/orchard grass hay on May 21. In order to know how much fertilizer to put on the hay ground we have to take soil cores and send them in for analysis. This will tell us what we need to put on for good hay yields for the rest of the season (alfalfa usually yields 3 cuttings a year, sometimes 4 in a good year).



Step one: Obtain a soil probe and sample bags from your local farmer cooperative. Use the soil probe to take a core. Push the probe into the soil by standing on the foot arm.


Step two: Pull the probe back up from the ground. Open the probe, make sure there is at least 8 inch core, and deposit it into the bucket. In a five acre field, take 5-10 cores.


Step three: Mix the cores in the bucket by hand until they are well mixed together. Then, fill the soil test bag to the indicated line and take in for analysis.

Recommendations from the University of Nebraska indicate that alfalfa requires P and K for good yields. A worksheet for calculating hay expenses from Iowa State University might be useful as well. For historical perspective, look at this 1912 publication on growing alfalfa in Iowa.

On a good solar day, we approved an oil pipeline

On a day when my PV array (6 solar panels) produced an above average output (9.84 kWh), our un-elected 3-person panel at the Iowa Utilities Board (Nick Wagner, Marion; Geri Huser, Altoona; and Elizabeth (Libby) Jacobs, West Des Moines) approved the building of the Bakken pipeline through our state. Instead of looking forward to reducing our carbon footprint, they have encouraged further use of petroleum of the dirtiest kind, fracked oil from the Bakken fields in North Dakota, a part of which is home to the Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara).

In one of the most meaningful statements after the shameful pronouncement, Tribal elder Donald Wanatee, of the Sac and Fox community in Iowa, wearing his war bonnet, made a statement in opposition to building the pipeline. As opposition advocates said afterward, the fight to stop the pipeline is not over yet. Nearly 300 landowners in Iowa have refused the dirty money of Energy Transfer Partners so many of them are expected to fight eminent domain take-over of their farms in court. According to Wally Taylor, an attorney in the case, the legal fight will begin within 30 days at the Polk County District Court.

Is our climate change really due to human activity?

How We Know Global Warming is Real


And on a related topic, what is the carbon footprint of some of our common foods?




Keeping the soil where it belongs…

This morning we woke up to a lot of rain. I mean a lot of water everywhere.


Lots of water after a 5 inch rain. Unusual in December in that the ground is not frozen.

Since nearly all my neighbors rip or chisel their corn stubble and don’t use cover crops, I was curious to see what the landscape looked like. So I went out and took some pictures of full road ditches, water flowing across tilled fields, and Alleman Creek out of its banks.

The rain started yesterday, Friday, December 12 in the evening. By 3 pm yesterday, the 13th, the nearest KCCI Schoolnet weather station had recorded 3.22 inches of rain. At about the same time, I put up my new rain gauge (I had put mine back up Friday night, but it was leaking because on Saturday morning there was nothing in it.) When I checked my new gauge about an hour ago, I had 1.8 inches in it. Therefore we have mostly like had about 5 inches of rain in the last 48 hours. Remember also that our ground is not frozen at all. Normally our ground would have been frozen by now and the rain would have all run off. Since the ground is not frozen, it is soaking in to some extent, but 5 inches is a lot of rain, so the soil cannot take all of the water at once.

There is where our conservation practices come in. We have 4 terraces, 6-8 inches of winter rye cover crop, no-till tillage system, and buffer strips. All of these practices contribute to less soil erosion on a day like today.


The roots of our winter rye cover crop are one reason that our farm retains more rain water, releasing it more slowly into Four Mile Creek watershed.

How much of this sudden runoff would cover crops and no-till prevent? That is a good question. Research shows that those practices will increase water retention on the land, thereby slowing down the runoff from heavy rains.

KCCI is also predicting the following:

“Fourmile Creek is forecast to rise above flood stage midday Monday, topping 12.6 feet or 0.4 feet above flood stage. It’s expected to be in decline by this evening.”

Source: KCCI weather viewed at 10:58 am December 14, 2015.


Rye roots

Today I had a look at the roots of the cereal rye on my farm. We have 6-8 inch growth on our cover crop so it is interesting to look at the growth below the surface as well.


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