Second in a series of four stories about leaders in the Practical Farmers of Iowa network.
NEXT INSTALLMENT: Vic and Cindy Madsen, DECEMBER 3, 2002

Proof positive that regenerative ag can
out-perform conventional

Continued from page 1

Placing seeds without encouraging weeds: A ridge-till planter is designed to minimize soil disruption, tillage passes and firming a seed-bed for surface weed seeds. The lead coulter (at right) slices through residue that is pushed off the ridge by residue guards as a horizontal disk takes out weeds or crop plants in the row. The seed drops into the furrow (after the soil opening has been stabilized by the firming rod), then is gently rolled by the press wheel to assure good seed-soil contact. The covering disks create a loose protective layer of soil over the seed to hold in moisture. Because there is no surface pressure, weed seeds are less likely to germinate quickly and weed seedings are more likely to dry up. (Drawing by John Gist, p. 34, Steel in the Field.)




Practical Farmers of Iowa

Coleman Natural Products
The Thompsons sell their beef to Coleman.

Niman Ranch
Thompson pork goes to Niman.

Henke Machine-Buffalo Equipment
P.O. Box 848
Columbus NE 68602-0848
(402) 562-0014, (800) 228-1405

Steel in the field
For details of the Thompsons’ fine-tuned weed-management system, check out chapter 14 of the book Steel in the Field: A Farmer’s Guide to Weed management Tools.
This and other books from the Sustainable Agricultural Network are available at:













“On the average,
most Iowa farmers spend $30 per acre each year for herbicide weed control in corn and soybeans. For not using herbicide for
35 years, our farm hasn’t gone to weeds. Herbicides are not
the answer, because eradication of any particular weed will only provide an opportunity for
another weed to establish itself. We’ve found that ridge tillage can reduce weed pressure by 90 percent.”

Weed Control Methods

Do other farmers question the Thompsons’ data? “I haven’t had anybody argue with the numbers yet. If you wonder why everybody doesn’t farm this way, it’s because it’s easier to do it the other way. You are fully employed with this system. Sure it’s more work, but it’s not the hard, back-breaking work my dad did on the farm,” Thompson said.

Thompson said weed management is his family farm’s strong suit and enhances profitability.

“On the average, most Iowa farmers spend $30 per acre each year for herbicide weed control in corn and soybeans. For not using herbicide for 35 years, our farm hasn’t gone to weeds. Herbicides are not the answer, because eradication of any particular weed will only provide an opportunity for another weed to establish itself. We’ve found that ridge tillage can reduce weed pressure by 90 percent.”

Thompson said there are nine basic steps for ridge-till weed management, including no tillage before planting. He said it is better to use a moldboard plow in the fall, which buries manure at root level. It also buries seeds deep, where they will rot after roughly five years. Thompson uses a Kverneland BB 100 plow, which is made in Norway. “It’s the Cadillac of plows. It’s a sod plow, and its twist in the plowshare is the key,” he said.

While farmers can’t let the weeds go, they can let some grow for awhile early in the season. This way, they provide a cover crop that inhibits the growth of weeds later in the season, Thompson noted.

Handling weeds and residue:
Weed control on the Thompson farm includes cover crops, crop rotation, ridge-till planting and -- for any weeds that show up despite the precautions – a Buffalo cultivator able to handle high amounts of residue. Common components shown in this composite drawing of several brands of maximum-residue cultivators include: the leading gauge wheel lets each unit follow the soil surface; disk hillers throw soil to cover in-row weeds; the large coulter slices through residue to prevent stalk wrapping around the shank; and the wide sweep dislodges between-row weeds.
--Drawing by John Gist, p. 22, Steel in the Field: A Farmer’s Guide to weed Management Tools (Sustainable Agricultural Network, Beltsville MD: 1997)

To control weeds, Thompson recommends the use a Buffalo planter and cultivator, and an M&W rotary hoe. The rotary hoe works well for both pre- and post-emergence to achieve the lowest weed densities.

“Weed control is always a challenge, though. We had some small patches this year where Canada thistle took over the corn. The answer is not just spraying herbicides. We’ll keep working to find the right combination,” Thompson said.

How do the numbers stack up on this weed management system? “With our rotation and weed control system, the cost savings in fertility are $25.71 per acre, weed management savings are $24.47, tillage savings are $14.33, and miscellaneous savings are $11.83,” Thompson said.

Livestock production

The Thompsons’ crop production system plays a key role in their livestock operation. They harvest their corn by the ear with a corn picker, and use corn cribs to store their crop. They grind the corn with a grinder-mixer and feed it, along with most of their soybeans, to their cattle. They also feed their corn to their hogs.

The Thompsons bale all their cornstalks. They grind the corncobs for livestock bedding, and use straw in the feedlot to help control runoff.

The sows farrow in isolette units, giving the hogs access to the outdoors. “We don’t use confinement systems. We want to make our farm a good place for the animals to live and for people to live and work,” Thompson explained.

At market time, loading hogs used to be a frustration, until the Thompsons adopted a double-alley loading chute. The system was designed by Temple Grandin, a well-known animal scientist from Colorado State University. Grandin’s systems are designed to ensure that animals are handled humanely and efficiently. “The hogs nearly load themselves with this system. When we tried it, I knew we had a bingo,” Thompson said.

The hogs are sold to Niman Ranch, and the cattle are sold to Coleman Natural Products. The Thompsons sell their beef and pork as natural meat, meaning it has been raised without antibiotics or hormones.

Improving soil health

A diversified crop and livestock system is environmentally sound as well as profitable, Thompson said.
His farm’s rotation system helps break up insect cycles. Adding manure puts organic matter into the soil, which controls erosion.

Area conservationists have measured a sharp decrease in erosion on Thompson’s farm, compared to others in the area. “Our soil is different than the soil in the next-door neighbor’s field,” Thompson said.

On conventional farms, erosion can carry away 10 to 11 tons of soil per acre. On Thompson’s farm, those numbers drop to less than four tons. In addition, earthworm populations soar in alternative systems like Thompson’s. The National Soil Tilth Lab has found that earthworms per acre in a conventional system totaled 18,718, compared to nearly 1.3 million in the alternative system.

The problem of overproduction

Thompson believes that a farm doesn’t have to be large to be sustainable or profitable. In his annual report, Thompson writes that agriculture’s problem is overproduction, which lowers the farm gate price below production costs.

“The first priority [of agriculture] is stewardship of the land, not feeding the world. The answers to our agriculture problems are the exact opposite of what farmers have been told for the past 40 years. The propaganda of specializing and increasing farm size has not brought prosperity to the majority of the farmers. This kind of program has brought prosperity to agriculture business field.”

Government programs have not helped, either. “The government very seldom does what needs to be done. I think the New Farm® bill is better than the last one, but it still subsidizes corn and soybeans a lot. You’ve got to cut production—that’s the only way you increase the price.”

Adopting alternatives

In farmers’ quest for profitability, Thompson said he does not advocate a complete switch to alternative crops.

“Some people think the answer is raising vegetables, emus, buffaloes or other exotic things. I don’t think we should stop raising those things, but the rich black soil here in Iowa is suited for corn and soybeans, and feeding those to pigs and cattle. We need to focus on what Iowa can do best, and pick up some of the ways we used to do things.”

What’s Thompson’s advice to other farmers who are looking for alternatives? “Take one field at a time when you make changes, and figure out your management abilities. Adapt ideas, don’t just adopt others’ programs. Every day you can find out some little thing that shows there’s a better way to do this. Keep trying to find things that might cut costs, improve efficiencies and improve yields. That’s what keeps me going.”

Previous installments in the Pioneers of Iowa Sustainable Farming series

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