Renewable Farming

Do your fields have a problem with flooding… drought… or just rain infiltration?

Here’s a series of seven photos which farmer Howard Vlieger shot at his farm, and e-mailed us Sept. 17. They show the dramatic difference in soil absorption between his biologically managed and cover-cropped fields, compared with neighboring “conventionally” tilled fields.

September 22, 2018 — Howard Vlieger’s e-mail handle is “studentofthesoil.” That’s the way his family has farmed for years. And it shows — especially in seasons with extreme drought and extreme rainfall. This season at Howard’s farm in northwest Iowa, it was rain upon rain: 4 inches in July, 7.35 inches in August, and 8.5 inches (so far) in September. By the first week in September, most of the conventionally tilled fields around Maurice, Iowa were fully saturated. Thus when a nearly 3-inch storm came through in mid-September, most fields saw a lot of ponding and runoff.

But Howard and his son have grown cover crops and used minimum-till and no-till for years. They’ve avoided “chempaction” from anhydrous ammonia and fertilizers with a high salt index. His soil’s ability to sponge up rainfall quickly, and percolate a lot of moisture deep into the soil profile, shows up clearly in seasons of weather stress. 

In previous seasons where drought persisted through late summer, Howard has shown field photos of his green corn just across the fence from burned-up neighbor’s corn. 

The photos below are headlined with Howard’s descriptions. His quip accompanying the e-mailed photos was: “You might be weird if you notice things like this.” Not many farmers have the opportunity to notice how it’s possible for a three-inch overnight rain to absorb into their soil almost as fast as it falls. Another seasoned consultant, Dr. Michael McNeill of Algona, IA, likes to demonstrate the dramatic differences of infiltration rates on farmers’ fields. He uses a cylindrical casing in the tilled field, and another in a nearby old untilled fencerow (if he can find one). 

Howard’s camera captured images of his own fields immediately after a nearly 3-inch rainstorm over 36 hours. Photos tell the story:

These fields drain directly into a roadside ditch along U.S. Highway 75, which runs north-south past Howard’s farm. His place is also bisected by the West Branch of the Floyd River.  Here’s the photo of that road ditch soon after nearly three inches of rain. You’re looking south, down the ditch on the west side of 75. No noticeable runoff. 


Next, Howard shot some photos at the same time, showing conventionally farmed neighboring fields less than a half-mile away. Water is still standing in those fields from that almost-three-inch rainstorm. He chose this field because you can see the ponding; the corn had been cut for silage in mid-September.


The photo below is looking west, taken from the west side of Highway 75.

Third, the photo below shows water standing in a conventionally farmed field.

Below, a photo showing drainage into the road ditch along Highway 75, flowing off the conventionally farmed fields:  This is immediately across Highway 75 from the first two photos, and fairly represents the water lost from conventionally farmed ground.


 We’re not the first to express the idea: “Drought, problem, flood problem… or infiltration problem?” We’d like to attribute this view to the conservation-minded agronomist who first wrote it, but so far we haven’t been able to retrieve it from the internet mists. Please let us know if you recall the originator.  A paradigm like that deserves to be properly credited.

Back in the drought year of 2012, Howard had sent us some photos of his fields in comparison with neighbors. We remembered those, and asked him to dig those images from his computer so we could offer the “rest of the story.”

That is, how soils farmed biologically can absorb and hold on to moisture so it’s available through stretches of dry weather.

The first two photos below were taken pre-tassel. Howard’s corn on biologically farmed, cover cropped land was still green and vigorous. The traited corn across the road, on conventional tillage, fertilizer and chemicals was rolling severely.  At the end of the season, Howard’s farm endured with a decent yield average for a severe drought: 117 bushels. The neighboring ground averaged 29 bushels.

 Later as corn was trying to fill, Howard obtained this photo from a plane. On the right side of the gravel road, Roundup Ready corn on conventionally farmed land shows dead or dying corn patches. Howard’s corn on the left side of the photo isn’t showing stress yet. The 2012 drought persisted into fall, hurting yields through the region. But Howard averaged 117 bu. and the corn on conventional management fell to 29 bushels.