Trying Times Call for Building Soil Health

On a fall day just south of West Union in northeastern Iowa, Loran and Brenda Steinlage’s harvested field borders two sides of the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation office. With the green foliage of cover crops peeking through a thick mat of corn residue, their field provides a beautiful example of soil conservation amidst a landscape dominated by black, exposed fields.

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When he was 16-years-old, Loran started farming alongside his father on a piece of land dubbed “Poor Farm.” This name came from the fact that no one else had been successful farming the land until the Steinlages purchased it in 1968. Loran’s father started the farm as a dairy and it continued as such until 1994. Although Loran is no longer managing dairy cows, one important lesson he learned from his father was how to observe, and adjust practices accordingly.

“The way he managed his cows is how I manage my crops," says Loran. "When he was feeding dairy cows, he would look at the cow pies and adjust his rations from there. I look at my crops the same way. I adjust my cover crops and fertilizers based on how my crops look.”

No-till farming 750 acres of corn, soybeans and some small grains, Loran has become the poster boy in northeastern Iowa for interseeding and relay cropping. When Loran introduced cover crops on his farm 10 years ago, he didn’t start with the usual fall-planted cereal rye, because that was a forage crop he already knew and utilized from the dairy business. Instead, he started experimenting with interseeding cover crops between his row crops. His interseeding mix—“the jungle mix” as he calls it—is varied but can include radish, rape, vetch, several clovers, buckwheat, phacelia, flax, oats and more.

Seeing impressive results with the introduction of cover crops, Loran is continually redesigning his interseeder to be more effective. From a simple garden planter to a homemade precision, double-row drill that can apply fertilizer while seeding his cover crops and soybeans, he is on his ninth prototype and is still making tweaks.

Loran has even taken the step of growing and harvesting his own cover crop seed. To do this, he is relay cropping, growing multiple crops at the same time. For example, in the fall Loran will drill cereal rye between his corn stalk residue. In the spring, he will seed soybeans where his corn stood. Next, he harvests the rye seed and then makes another trip with the interseeder to seed buckwheat where the rye grew. He can then harvest his buckwheat and soybean crops at the same time.

In addition to learning from observation, Loran turns to other farmers for advice and ideas. He started developing his extensive network of peers when his son, Rolan, was diagnosed with a brain tumor on Jan. 7, 2009. Faced with extremely trying times, the Steinlage family was forced to buckle down on their best ground, make the farm run itself and focus on making more money on less acres.

Since a lot of Loran and Brenda’s time was spent in hospitals and helping Rolan to heal, Loran could not physically make it to farm meetings to learn about new soil health practices. To connect with other farmers doing innovative work in soil health, Loran began exchanging ideas with farmers over e-mail, Twitter and Facebook.

“I do not have an agronomist," he says. "My peer network is my agronomist. My tech support is an international calling plan. I can’t tell you a thing my neighbors are doing, but I can tell you what is going on in Saskatchewan, France, Germany and Australia.”

Now that Rolan is truly well, Loran is expanding his experimentation and traveling abroad to France, Germany and Canada this winter to share his cover cropping experiences.

Loran and Brenda’s commitment to have a living root in the ground year-round has resulted in a soil so fine and mellow that the slightest pressure to a clump of black soil will cause it to crumble into coffee ground-like particles. This soil texture and structure has helped their farm adapt to the worst weather extremes. This past summer, the Stienlage farm experienced 21 inches of rain in one week. The family witnessed multiple downpours of 5 to 6 inches in single storm events.

But even through the craziest of weather, soil health practices have provided the Steinlage family with financial security and a piece of mind that their soils will be there to support them through the worst of times.

LSP organizer Shona Snater is a member of the Bridge to Soil Health team and can be contacted in the Lewiston, Minn., office at 507-523-3366, or via e-mail.

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