ARCADIA, Wis. — When Loran Steinlage of West Union, Iowa, hit some rough roads in his life, he realized lessons he was learning could be translated into his farm operation. The result was a transition from corn-on-corn farming to cover crops and crop diversity.
Steinlage, who farms 1,500 acres near West Union in northeast Iowa, recently spoke at a workshop sponsored by the Buffalo Trempealeau Farmer Network about what he has learned while working his fields.
It was spending extensive time at the hospital while his son was being treated for a brain tumor that led him to experiment with different farming techniques. At the time his only connection with the outside world was through social media. So he developed a network of farmers for exchanging ideas and methods.
“I don’t need to be the smartest guy, but I know who to call,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I have questions.”
Steinlage said he had failures, but he says those can be turned into accidental learning opportunities. He set a goal of planting cover crops on every acre and keeping something growing all the time. He tried strip-tilling, but said he wasn’t satisfied with the results. Currently he uses a combination of interseeding, relay cropping, companion planting and “Controlled Traffic Farming.”
Clovers, buckwheat and vetch are crops he uses for interseeding. He started with a rolling cultivator and a dandy seed box, and has progressed to designing his own equipment with Dawn Equipment Company of Illinois.
“(I learned to) figure out how to make it work before tweaking,” he said.
Relay cropping means the second crop is planted before the harvest of the first crop. That allows Steinlage to squeeze more crops into the same season — and it allows the second crop to have a jump start on growth. One of the relays he has tried is wheat with soybeans, where wheat is combined while the soybeans are still green. He learned the beans will stretch if the grain is planted too thick
Companion planting is a method gardeners use, planting crops next to each other that are complementary. Native American Indians used companion planting when they sowed a combination of beans, corn and squash. The beans added nitrogen and the squash shaded the weeds. Steinlage’s version uses buckwheat and soybeans, which are harvested at the same time. The drawback is that it necessitates extra equipment to separate the grains after harvest.
Along with the companion planting, Steinlage said he sees observation as an important tool. He looks at his fields to tell him what’s happening in the soil. He contends that soil tests give a view of the soil at a certain point in time. And individual plant growth, whether weeds or planted crops, is out there all season telling a story. He calls weeds “indicator plants” and asks himself, “What is there?” and “Why is it there?” He compares his fields to raising children — all are keepers, but need to be handled differently; each is unique.
Steinlage’s use of Controlled Traffic Farming is new in the United States but is popular in Europe, although it takes a lot of planning. Controlled Traffic Farming uses permanent traffic lanes called tramlines to avoid compaction of soils caused by heavy equipment. Steinlage started using it in 2002 by planting 12 rows 30 inches apart with tramlines of 120 inches. The tramlines are the tracks where the majority of the equipment’s weight rests as it passes across the field. The result is an improvement in his soil structure, he said, because compaction is limited to a specific area.
Experimenting continues on the Steinlage farm; there are many successes.
“I have learned to minimize the failures,” he said.