A John Deere Publication
Two farmers inspecting corn stalks in a corn field

Don (left) and Andy Linder check no-till corn for development. Starting conservation practices isn't easy, but Andy Linder has this advice: "Surround yourself with people who are doing it and ask lots of questions."

Agriculture, Sustainability   April 01, 2024


Lessons Learned

What Andy and Don Linder have learned from conservation practices.

by Gil Gullickson

About a decade ago, the father-son team of Don and Andy Linder dabbled with vertical tillage. After trying it out on different fields and residue situations, the Easton, Minnesota, farmers came to a simple conclusion.

"We figured out we did not need to do deep tillage anymore," says Andy. They determined this would save soil and fuel and machinery costs.

"A lot of people talk about the amount of bushels they raise, but not about the amount of money required to raise those bushels," says Andy.

In spring 2015, they no-tilled corn into the field. In 2016, they expanded into no-till soybeans and further expanded into no-till corn in 2017.

The shift to less tillage also accompanied a switch to cover crops. In fall 2014, they flew a cover crop into standing soybeans. No-till corn followed in 2015. They gradually expanded cover crop plantings in other fields on their farms.

"We also hired some strip till done early on in corn," says Andy. "It works well with a cover crop, because we could till up a strip and still leave a cover crop between the rows."

Granted, cover crop seed and seeding incur costs, too. Still, they prefer strategies over products to produce soil perks.

"It's always easy to use a jug of product that is supposed to boost soil carbon and biology levels," Andy says. "If I said cover crops could accomplish the same thing, it would get less interest than using a jug of product."

Above. No-till soybeans help preserve soil and also help cut input costs. No-till and strip till are also tools that can help preserve organic matter in soils that can help build perks such as better water infiltration.


Making it work. Southern Minnesota soils can become sticky when wet, particularly in soaking springs like 2023. Still, the Linders have found slashing tillage and cover crops can work even with the stickiest of soils.

"Even under tillage, there are still wet spots to manage," says Don. "You just have to let them dry out."

"What I've learned is that planting right is better than planting early," adds Andy. "In a wet year, we learned that we have to be more patient so we can do a better job of planting. We've especially learned with corn that if you plant when soil conditions are not right, it can mess you up for the rest of the year."

Early planting isn't always a perk with soybeans, either, particularly if heavy rainfall floods previous plantings.

"I spent all night planting soybeans on May 10 [2023], because a big storm was on the way," he says. "The beans struggled to come up and we had to replant."

This sharply contrasted with another field that was planted after May 10. "It was always a little behind [compared to fields planted before the rain] but there was a good stand," Andy says.

Still, anytime a new technology surfaces, mistakes will be made.

"Cover crops are an easy thing to blame, as they can cause headaches," says Andy. For example, letting a grass cover crop such as cereal rye grow too tall in front of corn can make it difficult to terminate. The additional residue associated with reduced tillage can also harbor oddball insects, such as slugs and black cutworms.

"The biggest thing we have learned is that if you do a poor job planting, you leave an open seed furrow that leaves the plant much more susceptible to insect damage," says Andy.

In subsequent years, the Linders concentrated on planting under more conducive conditions that enables better closing of the seed furrow.

On the flip side, cover crops and no-till also have their perks. Less tillage means less weeds.

"When you don't disturb the soil, the weed seed bank stays buried," says Don.

Meanwhile, cover crops help smother weeds that do germinate. Diversifying their corn and soybean rotation with peas and oats also reduces weed pressure by mixing up crop growth cycles and different herbicide sites of action.

"We still have to spray, but weed pressure is less," Andy adds.

The good news is the conservation tillage and cover crop community is a welcoming one. "This community is willing to share their mistakes so they [newcomers] don't make the same ones we did," says Andy. ‡

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