Dritz is a 12-year strip-till veteran who tried cover crops last year but wanted to learn what did and didn’t work from other group corn and soybean farmers, and from Gruver’s experience. “You pick up a lot here that you can’t get at farm shows,” Dritz says.

Hammer, a corn, soybean and wheat grower, helped organize the summer event after he saw the benefits of information exchange at the Steinlage farm. “Loran started the network and invited me,” Hammer says. “We knew each other through Ag Talk (http://bit.ly/13ac83S). I was looking for some group advice on cover crops and controlled traffic.”

 

Watch a video about controlled traffic from Corn + Soybean Digest.

 

Some of that advice came from Clay Mitchell, an early adopter Iowa farmer with a Harvard degree in biomedical engineering. “Our Achilles heel in controlled traffic is rutting in the tracks,” he says.

“You’re tempted to till them, but you shouldn’t. As soon as you do that, even for one year, you destroy aggregate soil stability,” Mitchell says. “We haven’t seen negative yield impacts on crops next to the traffic path. We’ve used drags and built machines that smooth out the ruts, but the best thing is to stay away from really skinny tires, and stay off wet soils to avoid ruts in the first place.”

After his presentation, Mitchell fielded questions on topics ranging from farmland-buying strategies to breaking weed-resistance cycles to fertilizer placement. He and his father Wade have incorporated ideas into their operation from farmers around the world. “When I meet a farmer from France or Australia, I can see in their eyes we have something in common,” Mitchell says.

“In no other industry is there as little change based on price for the product as there is for the farmer. We have to innovate to survive high and low prices. The harder it is to farm a piece of ground, the more management matters. I see resilience in this group.”

Group member Bob Recker isn’t a farmer. He spent 41 years as a product engineer for John Deere before retiring five years ago to start Cedar Valley Innovation, an aerial crop-scouting and interpretation business. “If I see variation from the air, you’ll see it on a yield map,” Recker says.

He’s also fascinated with single-plant growth and yield. He measures the grain from each plant and calculates the single plant yield based on the space that the plant occupies. He believes that understanding plant variability and its causes can lead to improved yield for the whole field.

“A quality conversation has direct economic value,” Bolson says. “You can’t replicate what you learn firsthand. It becomes part of your decision-making without you knowing it.

“I knew Bob, Clay and Wade had things to say that other farmers in the group should hear. There’s a lot of interest in cover crops; I knew Joel and others also wanted the interaction we could have with him one on one,” Bolson says. “For me, this meeting was another chance to pick up on segments of the conversation to see what we can do better on our family farm.”

The next meeting will probably be this winter.