Dean Sponheim, Osage, has been crisscrossing north central Iowa and southern Minnesota counties throughout the winter, presenting informational meetings on the use of cover crops and strip-till farming.
Sponheim’s interest in using strip-tilling came because out of a need for an alternative to his regular tilling practices. “My interest in strip-tilling came because I had a troublesome farm, which had poor drainage and poor crop emergence because the ground crusted over,” he said.
In 1999, Sponheim attended a conference at Iowa State University, where an Ohio farmer talked about the concept of strip-tilling. “I decided to try it and I have never looked back,” he said.
Returning from the conference, Sponheim implemented his first strip-tilling. Initially, he experimented with the strip-till system, but by 2004, all of his land had been converted to the practice. That same year, he purchased his own strip-till equipment. Sponheim then began doing custom work for other farmers, in the area, who wanted to experiment with the strip-tilling on a limited basis.
Sponheim’s work with cover crops began after attending a Natural Resources Conservation Service meeting. “After hearing about it, a bunch of us farmers decided to try it. We first tried it in 2012,” he said. “The first year I had cover crops. I feared my ground would be wetter, because it wouldn’t get the sun or wind near the soil to dry it out, but it ended up being dryer than our other crop land” said Spoheim.
He acknowledged he was somewhat skeptical when he first tried the practice.
“Actually, I have learned cover crops help to take up moisture, because of the growing plants. With growing plants you also have a massive root system that develops porous spaces in the soil, which helps the soil to hold more moisture,” Sponheim said. “Another benefit is when it’s dry, the water is held in the soil longer and there is more moisture available.”
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After seeing the benefits of planting fall cover crops, he later implemented the sale of cover crop seed and the application of it into his business. “In 2012, our business seeded about 500 acres and by 2018, we seeded nearly 18,000 acres aerially and drilled another 6,000 acres,” Sponheim said. He added he is starting to see more farmers experiencing the benefits of a cover crop in their row crop systems.
Sponheim said the combined practices of strip-tillage and cover crops also contributes to the preservation and building up of soil life. “It is estimated in the past 150 years we have lost 50 percent of our top soil, 50 percent of our organic matter and 50 percent of our soil carbon,” he said. “An acceptable rate of soil erosion each year, using full tillage systems in one to five tons per acre, but I don’t want to lose any soil.”
Sponheim said plant roots and plant growth, which are produced with cover crops in the late fall, along with the field residue throughout the winter, provides protection for soils and improves water quality.
Sponheim said spring growth of cover crops also recovers nutrients, prevents water and wind erosion and keeps more nutrients out of waterways. All these factors contribute to the long-term benefits of saving and improving top soil, increasing bio-mass, improving water quality and improving soil health.
Spoheim advocates interested farmers should begin experimenting with the practices on a limited bases until they experience the ongoing benefits of strip-tillage and cover crops. “There are a handful of guys in Hancock and Winnebago Counties who have been doing this for several years,” Sponheim said. He warned “Strip-tilling and cover crops needs to be properly managed.”
To obtain more information from Sponheim on strip-tillage and cover crops, farmers can reach him at email@example.com.