Harold Loeffler intended to save soil when he switched from conventional tillage to ridge-till in 1983.
Today, he and his sons ridge-till because it also makes them more money.
Fifteen years ago, the elder Loeffler figured he'd give up some yield in his corn and soybeans when he switched to ridge-till. But, he reasoned, it would be the best system for his rolling Mankato, MN, farm.
His sons, Brian, now 28, and Brad, 26, weren't old enough to ponder their father's decision at the time. Now that they've joined the business, though, they've given it a lot of thought - and economic analysis.
"Dad had looked at ridges on other farms before he changed over, and when he changed, he changed every acre," Brian reports. "We didn't find out the full extent of the benefits until we'd done it a few years."
To their surprise - and satisfaction - ridge-till didn't reduce yields.
"We found that we could do this and control erosion, not give up yield, and save quite a bit in input expenses, too," Brian states.
With the Loefflers all involved in the operation, they need enough income for three families. So you can bet they've run the numbers more than once to make sure what they're doing is returning as much profit as possible.
They've added land to the business, too, in order to keep everyone employed.
After 15 years, the Loefflers figure ridges are still the best way to farm.
"A few years ago, ridge-till was really a fad," Brian points out. "A lot of people didn't stick with it. I think it requires different - not necessarily better - management than conventional- or reduced-till.
"The fad is over now, and people who are still doing it are doing it because it works. And because they're making money with it."
His most recent economic comparison of ridges vs. reduced-till, done for the Midwest, shows a $26.25/acre annual benefit for ridges. That assumes a 50-50 corn-bean rotation.
"That assumes there would be no difference in yield between the two systems," he adds.
"The thought has crossed our minds a couple of times to go to no-till. But we strongly believe in cultivation after the crop is emerged to help aerate the soil and control weeds," Loeffler continues.
"In cases where weather hasn't allowed us to rebuild ridges, we've seen yield reductions the following year. I believe that's from having to plant on the flatter field, where soil is cooler and wetter."
Loeffler says cultivating helps keep weed-control expenses lower, but the big ridge-till advantage is the higher, drier seedbed.
"Residue falls to the bottom of the ridge, so we're planting in clean soil. The planter works better and crops emerge faster and more uniformly."
The Loefflers also found that the work load is lighter in spring and fall than with conventional- or reduced-till systems. However, it's higher in summer due to the time it takes to cultivate.
"We spend our time in the field when the crop is growing and not so much either before or after," states Loeffler.
His numbers are shown in the tables.
For the ridge-till side of the comparison, he used actual numbers from the Loeffler farm. Since it's 100% ridge-till, he pulled the reduced-till numbers from the Minnesota farm management survey.
Reduced-till, in this case, includes fall chisel plowing of corn stubble (no fall tillage after soybean harvest) plus two spring passes with a field cultivator.
The economic model Loeffler used assumed that each farm was 1,000 acres. He broke expenses into two categories: fixed and direct cash.
Much of the ridge-till advantage came in reduced equipment overhead and operating expenses. Note that ridge-till had a $15.76/acre advantage over reduced tillage in annual machinery expenses.
In corn production, he came up with a slight savings in fertilizer and more than a $10/acre herbicide savings. Soybean herbicide expenses were greater for ridge-till than for reduced-till. But fertilizer expenses were lower, resulting in a slight overall advantage for ridge-till.
He assumed fertilizer would be broadcast in a reduced tillage system, while it's banded in ridge-till.
"Banding allows us to produce the same yield with less applied fertilizer," Loeffler explains.
When direct cash expenses for corn and bean production were averaged together, Loeffler came up with a $10.49/acre advantage for ridge-till.