Tony Stierwalt farms about 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad, Bill, in Pesotum, Illinois using strip-till, no-till, and cover crops in his system. Tony is the fifth generation on both sides of his family to farm. Like many farm kids before him, Tony grew up helping out on the family farm wherever he could and participated in FFA in high school.
Tony gained interest in cover crop varieties while learning about them in a college class, and based on his experience he strongly believes they are a valuable tool that is underutilized in Illinois. Tony typically flies on a mix of winter kill species (radishes and oats) ahead of corn and will run strips through the cover. Ahead of soybeans, he plants winter hardy species (cereal rye and rapeseed) in September or as early as possible to maximize fall growth. In the spring, he terminates right after planting in order to get as much rye growth as possible. Tony’s current management plans also include strip-till and no-till, and he has experimented with different cover crops, including clovers and hairy vetch, to see what works best.
From a weed control standpoint, Tony has noticed significant differences between fields where cereal rye was grown and fields that were not planted with a cover crop. Tony considers cover crops to be an integral part of his Non-GMO soybean program. “I wouldn’t plant Non-GMO beans without it,” Tony explains. After planting soybeans in a field that was conventionally tilled following a tile project, Tony recalled, “the difference in weed control was incredible.” For this reason, Tony strongly believes in using cover crops and no-till together to reduce his weed pressure.
Tony also has some fields where soil erosion causes issues. Although his land is relatively flat and washouts are not as intense as in other parts of the state, Tony would occasionally experience washouts following major rain events. After implementing conservation practices to keep the soil in place, Tony has noticed that fewer washouts occur, as the soil is able to remain in place due to reduced disturbance and the presence of living roots in the soil. The substantial improvements in soil biology and water infiltration have allowed Tony to get out into the field earlier in the season.
In Tony’s area, many farmers don’t think they are equipped to implement these farming methods. Tony acknowledges that for the past few generations, farmers have been using conventional methods and may not want to change. For strip-till specifically, Tony references the upfront investment that might lead to hesitation or delay of adoption, even for the many farmers who want to get into this method. Tony also recognizes there is a real fear of government regulation that may make these methods mandatory.
Even in the face of these challenges or concerns, Tony is pleased with the differences he has experienced on his farm. The advantages have been substantial enough to make it worthwhile to continue utilizing these practices. According to Tony, “conservation practice adoption is achievable for anyone.” Tony adds, “nothing that I’m doing by any stretch is groundbreaking. Anyone can do what I do.”
Tony Stierwalt is one of six Illinois farmers featured in ISAP’s Introduction to Soil Health Practices, a 30-page guidebook which identifies and explains the causes of several conditions that often lead to common resource or agronomic concerns for farmers, including erosion, compaction, weed pressure, and nutrient loss. To meet other farmers who are finding success with conservation practices and to explore the guidebook, visit www.ilsustainableag.org/soil-health-journey