Celebrating the history of ‘no-till’ soil stewardship

By By Donna Rasmussen, Winneshiek Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioner

Neil Wangsness of Hesper with his Allis Chalmers 600 series no-till planter, originally owned by the Winneshiek Soil and Water Conservation District. (submitted photo)

Soil Stewardship Week is April 30 through May 7. What better time to retell some local history about no-till practices in Winneshiek County? Some of that history resides with Neil Wangsness of Hesper. He owns the original Allis-Chalmers 600 series no-till planter once owned and rented out in the early 1970s by the Winneshiek Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD). Offering the opportunity to rent the planter allowed farmers to try the innovative practice of no-till before making the investment in their own equipment.

Soil conservation has always been important to Wangsness family, including Neil, his father, Elmer, and his brother, Wayne. Elmer followed a conservation plan on his farm starting in 1944, and by the 1950s, he was strip-cropping all the cropland on his farm. A well-known aerial photo of Washington Prairie Lutheran Church shows that area of the county with perfectly spaced contour strips. 

Elmer was a commissioner on the Winneshiek County Soil Conservation Board from 1957 to 1963. Along with his fellow commissioners, he actively promoted soil conservation practices to stop the extensive erosion that followed European settlement. The commissioners’ best promotional tool was setting an example on their own farms. They were the innovators and leaders that took the risks trying new practices to prove that they saved soil. 

In 1976, when their family farm was split up and Neil began to farm on his own, he needed a planter. He knew that Paul Kuhn in Fort Atkinson had the no-till planter that the Winneshiek SWCD had purchased new from Paul a few years earlier. Neil bought the planter from Paul in 1977 for no-till soybeans and corn. 

According to No-Till Farmer magazine, the Allis-Chalmers 600 series no-till planters were introduced to the market in 1966. Allis Chalmers was widely recognized as being the first to successfully design and manufacture no-till planters for widespread use. Their unique fluted coulter design cut through the residue to prepare a seedbed ahead of the planter unit. The planter frame had three toolbars to accommodate the various coulter options making the planter versatile to fit almost any operation.

Neil’s 600 series planter has a 77 Series Air Champ planting unit. It is set up to plant four 38-inch rows, but could be modified to plant up to six narrower rows. Neil said that no-till is “quite a science to stay in it.” His planter was originally set up to apply dry insecticide with the seed. He later added two stainless steel tanks for applying liquid fertilizer along with liquid insecticide. The John Deere tanks were salvaged from other equipment, including one that came from long-time neighbor and SWCD Commissioner Harris Bruvold. Neil said that his yields were always comparable to what everyone else was getting with conventional tillage. He recalled that in 1988, which was a very dry year, everyone’s yields took a big hit but his would have been worse if it hadn’t been for no-till. One problem that some farmers had with no-till was the previous year’s stalks in the field. Neil dealt with that problem by grazing his beef cows on the stalks over the winter to reduce the amount of residue the following spring. 

Neil’s planter is past its prime, but it certainly represents a time when the new practice of no-till planting needed a reliable piece of equipment that eased the transition to a better way of farming. Neil recognizes that there have been many improvements to no-till planters over the years but that those improvements led to fewer contour strips like those on his dad’s farm. After more than 50 years, no-till farming is now done on 22 percent of the farms in Winneshiek County (2017 USDA Census of Agriculture). No-till saves time and fuel, and improves soil health by leaving residue and allowing the soil biology to build organic matter. 

The Winneshiek SWCD can still assist farmers with making the transition to no-till and other conservation practices by offering technical assistance and incentive payments. 

For more information, contact the SWCD at 563-382-4352 or find “WinneshiekSWCD” on Facebook. 

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