Protecting Precious Topsoil

Spring soybean field

John and Laurie Currie returned to farming in northwest Iowa during the economic crisis of the 1980s. People told the couple they were crazy. While they perhaps didn’t know enough at the time to share the sentiment, they did keep their off-farm jobs until they earned enough from agriculture to support their family – he as an engineer, she as a teacher.

It was one of the many decisions driven as much by necessity as the dream to restore the original footprint of his family’s farm, established in 1911 when his great grandfather put money down on ground to be split between his four sons. Only John's grandfather chose to continue farming through the depression years of the 1930s.

To gain his own foothold in the industry, John began his farming career on his father-in-law’s ground. A few years later, his father passed away, and John was the only family member interested in farming. He became sole operator and, as opportunity and money allowed, slowly knitted together parcels to restore a portion of the Odebolt-area Cook Ranch bought by his great-grandfather. His youngest son, David, returned to the farm with his family a couple years ago.

“I think the legacy aspect of what Dad has been able to do influenced a lot of my decision to come back,” said David. “If (the farm) still looked the way Grandpa had it, then maybe it wouldn’t have been as much of a draw. My two daughters are the sixth generation living in the house my ancestors built. That’s a pretty cool deal.”

Continuing the Legacy

Even as John and Laurie expanded the farm, they never aspired to grow beyond what they could manage together. David has come around to a similar mindset.

“Real estate is king. You know, that’s how I’ve always viewed it – own as many acres as you can,” David said. “But then I hear wisdom from Dad about, ‘Well, if you own as many acres as you can get, you have to farm as many acres as you can, and the purpose of living on a farm loses some of its luster.’ ”

“We've been able to agree on that balance between what is most effective for our operation and what is best for our families. We're able to do a lot more of the things that make farming fun and do them as a family.”

Both agree that sustainability practices adopted over the years by John save time and reduce some of their costs. John said labor and circumstances shaped some of his early decisions.

“I was one of the first no-tillers in our area. A lot of it was just manpower. Laurie and I were the only ones farming at the time, and we had a short 2,000 acres between us. Now, it’s more about machinery and fuel costs and just looking at the sustainability of the topsoil we have. That soil is pretty precious.”

Adopting Reduced Tillage Practices

The first time John appreciated the potential of no-till was in the spring of 1991. The previous fall had been too wet to work his fields, and a wet spring made planting season very difficult.

“At that point, I stopped discing and planted right into standing stocks. You could see the soil contact because everything was matted down from the snow we’d had, and the planter would cut right through the residue. That was the first time I think I realized, hey, this works a lot better if you don’t even touch the stuff.

“From that point on, the soil has just carried the equipment better. It’s got more of a natural structure. You see worm holes all over through the soil. The infiltration when you get a hard rain is so much better.”

The Curries had also strip-tilled until switching to 20-inch rows, which allows them to leave more space between seeds in the row for root development while also creating a canopy of plant cover later in the season to help suppress weeds.

“The canopy closing and not allowing sunlight to hit weeds and grow was a big reason for us moving to 20-inch rows,” John said. “Some of the late-season management that people do, whether that’s doing side dressing with nitrogen passes or other things, we can’t do with 20-inch rows. But I think our yield is as good or better than a lot of people regardless.”

After harvest, the Curries are left with more biomass than they would see with 30-inch rows. This breaks down into nutrients and, eventually, adds to the soil structure. And while the Curries know their soil is healthier because of no-till, they don’t claim it leads to superior yields. “I’m sure there are years where maybe it has cost us a bushel or two (versus conventional tillage). But I look at it in the long term, and I’m convinced we’re doing it the right way.”

Managing Volatility, Maintaining Consistency

Just as his dad did, David returned to the operation during a challenging period in agriculture. Volatility and rising costs mean the two weigh every expense, especially for fertilizer. What is the most efficient way to grow a bushel with the least amount of nitrogen? How can the biologicals they sell through their seed dealership reduce the amount of nitrogen needed?

As they work through the decisions, David said he appreciates the position his dad has created for him: “Dad has been doing a lot of the front-edge practices when nobody else was. Some of that was because of manpower and efficiency and trying to accomplish the most with the least.

“A lot of family farms, when they get transferred down generation to generation, keep a lot of the same practices. I’ve walked into a situation where efficiency and sustainability and trying new practices has been hammered out. Now those practices are just part of what we do. And we’re not going back.


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