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Howard County Brothers Happy With Switch to No-Till

Missouri's Conservation Showcase






Howard County Brothers Happy With Switch to No-Till

Anthony and Tom Westhues weren't very pleased in 2006 when they received a letter from the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It informed them that a conservation compliance review of their farm near Glasgow revealed an excessive rate of soil erosion. The Westhues brothers were told that, by law, they would need to come up with a new plan to reduce erosion if they wanted to continue participating in USDA programs.

The well-respected farmers met with Tim Viertel, an NRCS soil conservationist in Howard County, and discussed a variety of options for reducing the farm'sAnthony, left, and Tom Westhues in one of their fields of no-till corn in summer 2008. average rate of soil erosion. The annual rate of erosion was as high as 22 tons per acre on some fields, even though the Westhueses had been no-tilling their soybeans and using minimum tillage for their corn. However, on fields with 10-16 percent slopes, any tillage was proving to be too much.

"No till was the only way that they could get the soil loss levels low enough with a corn-soybeans rotation," Viertel says. "But they wanted to maintain that rotation, so they chose the option of no-tilling their corn."

That represented a big change for the fourth-generation farmers. Since their great grandparents moved to the Glasgow farm from Germany in 1892, the corn crops had always been tilled. The plow hadn't been used for years, but now the Westhueses would be keeping even their chisel and field cultivator in the barn.

"When you grow up doing tillage, and it's been working for 40 years, you don't want to change from what you know is working," Tom Westhues says.

"We were both skeptics," Anthony adds. "But we decided to go full-bore and plant all of our corn using no-till. We had quite a few sleepless nights, and I got off the tractor many times and said to myself 'what am I doing'?"

What they ended up doing was harvesting the highest-yielding corn in 2007 that they had ever grown. Where they normally harvest 180-190 bushels per acre, the Westhueses harvested 215 bushels per acre during their first year of no-tilling corn. And it was a drought year.

"We got 215 bushels per acre on this farm, and the last good rain we had was June 30," Tom says. "It was the darndest thing I ever saw. I couldn't believe it."

Tom and Anthony hint at a local culture among farmers that tends to keep people from deviating from tradition. But their results with no-till corn have been so good that they no longer are concerned about what other farmers might think about their switch to it.

"We had people tell us that you couldn't no-till corn into corn and still have good yields," Anthony says. "I guess it was peer pressure more than anything, but we're right here on this highway where people can see what we're doing, and we were afraid to do it before."

Tom adds that the peer pressure, combined with what they perceived to be a lack of knowledge about no-till, kept them from no-tilling their corn until the compliance review gave them more incentive. He says the switch wasn't difficult. The main thing they had to do was to alter their planting equipment to better cut through the corn stubble.

"No-tilling corn into beans is easy. No-tilling corn into corn stubble is more of a challenge. But even that turned out pretty well," Tom said in 2008, the brothers' second year of planting corn with no-till. "We've had a more consistent emergence with no-till coming up through the stubble than we did when we tilled."

On the heals of a personal-record harvest in the drought year of 2007, Tom and Anthony say they are anxious to see what their yields will be in 2008, when there has been plenty of rain.

In addition to the yields, the Westhueses are pleased with the conservation benefits that the no-till is providing. By no-tilling their corn, their erosion rate has been reduced to about 7 tons per acre, well below the 10-ton limit for their land to be in compliance.

"We noticed when we went to no-till that there wasn't as much sediment in the terrace pans," Anthony says. "In 2007 there wasn't even enough to talk about."

The lower rate of erosion has reduced the amount of time the Westhueses spend maintaining terraces, and as Tom points out, it has kept expensive potassium and phosphorous from washing off the fields. They also have spent less time on their tractors because no-till requires fewer trips through fields. That has reduced fuel costs, which Anthony says offsets the cost of more herbicides needed with no-till.

Anthony says it would be an understatement to say that he and Tom are pleased with their switch to no-till corn.

"We won't go back (to tilling)," he says.

And what do other farmers in the area think of the Westhueses switch to no-till?

"They haven't said anything to us," Tom says. "But people drive by slow and look. They know what we're doing."

Viertel says no-till has been slow to catch on in the area, but he and the Westhueses have noticed more no-till fields this year. The increase could be a result of higher fuel prices, or perhaps the timeliness of getting crops planted during a wet spring. But it could also partly be because people have noticed that Tom and Anthony Westhues tried no-till and succeeded.

Compliance is no longer an issue for the Weshueses, and they are happy with their no-till results. That's all good news to Viertel and to Allen Voss, the NRCS district conservationist who had to send the Westhueses the non-compliance letter.

"They have always been conscientious, and they have wanted to care for their land. It was really hard for us to inform them that they were out of compliance," Viertel says.

In retrospect, Tom Westhues says, the non-compliance letter that led to him and Anthony switching to no-till turned out to be a good thing.

"I have to apologize for all the things I called Tim, because we love no-till," he says.

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