Start with grass waterways and buffer strips
Financial health is typically measured in dollars and cents, but that’s not the only standard Bryan Boll uses to evaluate his farm’s well-being. Accruing nutrient-rich soil is just as vital to the future of his operation as hard currency.
In 15 years, the 39-year-old farmer has grown his diversified farm based in the fertile Red River Valley of northwest Minnesota, near Crookston, from 800 acres to 5,000 acres. Crops grown on the farm include corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and edible beans. Almost all of the acreage was enrolled at some point in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which USDA says helps reduce soil erosion nationwide by more than 300 million tons per year.
Bryan Boll uses conservation tillage practices on nearly 75% of his 5,000 crop acres that comprise his Minnesota farm. He estimates savings of $23 per acre using strip-till rather than conventional tillage methods.
Boll is sensitive to the fact that he farms ground pulled from CRP and has implemented minimum tillage, strip-till and no-till on about 75% of his acres. Eventually, he hopes to have close to 100% of the farm in some form of conservation tillage.
"I want to keep that land together, whole, not eroding," he says.
That’s not to say Boll won’t use conventional tillage if needed. On some acres he believes it’s the best option. Still, he estimates he has reduced the total number of trips on most of his acres from four or five per year—to chisel plow, cultivate and apply nutrients—to one trip per year, excluding planting and harvesting.
David Genereux, a Centrol Crop Consulting agronomist who works with Boll, says the cost savings from eliminating field passes adds up quickly. He estimates, conservatively, that Boll saves $5 per acre for each trip he doesn’t make. Eliminating one to two trips across his acreage per year means Boll saves between $25,000 and $50,000 in out-of-pocket costs.
"When you limit those trips that’s a big deal; you’re talking about reducing soil compaction, nutrient use, fuel consumption and using fewer natural resources," Boll says.
Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie says keeping a nimble mind-set about tillage practices is smart.
"Farmers should be ready to adapt their tillage by what each field (or even zone) demands. That could mean some fields are no-tilled and some are managed with tillage," Ferrie notes.
He adds that the unifying concept across fields shouldn’t be the type of tillage but rather the concept of managing the soil profile to achieve uniform density.
Boll says overall his reduced tillage practices have provided yield results equal to, or even better than, what he achieves with conventional tillage. But he has made the conversion to some conservation practices cautiously. He initially rented a strip-till unit from another farmer to evaluate that method of tillage on 40 acres until he was sure he could make the system work.
"I couldn’t go out and buy $250,000 worth of equipment and then find out it was a mistake," he says. "As a young farmer, that would’ve put me under."