Strip-tillage saves the crop on this Illinois farm
In 2018, Andrew Reuschel, a Golden, Illinois, farmer, was moving firmly down a regenerative agriculture path that is key in building soil carbon. Following in a soil conservation mode begun by his grandfather, Louis, and continued with his father, Jeff, their fields were nearing 100% no-till.
- READ MORE: What is your word worth in estate planning?
Andrew continuously experimented with multispecies cover crops — some of which he might plant up to three times on a single field during a calendar year. The strategies were working well. Corn yields tallied more than 200 bushels per acre with reduced herbicide and fertilizer use. The soils grew richer with organic matter, of which soil carbon is a key component. All seemed right with the world.
Prolific spring rains fell. Not just one year, but three straight years: 2019, 2020, 2021. Fields drowned. Rain delayed planting for weeks and even months. Even their cover crops suffered from excessive moisture.
In a scramble to get crops in the ground and growing, the Reuschels quickly moved to strip-tillage to find a drier band in which to plant. Strip-till consists of narrow tilled strips 6 to 12 inches wide, leaving the area between the rows undisturbed.
The Reuschels are still trying to perfect the process, using leased machinery while formulating plans to build their own strip-tillage tool.
Chastened Yet Wiser
The experience has made Andrew Reuschel a chastened man. He’s also a wiser, more philosophical farmer.
“I don’t have the luxury to be a purist anymore,” says Andrew. “We were on this track with 100% no-tillage into green cover crops. But it’s sad to watch your corn rot in the ground three years in a row because you’re trying to be a purist.”
In 2020, the Reuschels tilled strips in November and December in anticipation of another wet year in 2021.
“Having those strips made in the fall was the difference between planting in April and planting in May,” says Andrew. “Fall strips got us into the field in April.”
Even so, they planted corn in 2021 in April, May, and June because of wet conditions and ongoing rains on more than 1,500 acres. Cover crops had struggled to emerge, let alone take up the excess moisture.
“Nothing can keep up with 4-inch rainfalls,” says Andrew. Once up, the Reuschels used a roller to knock back or damage the cover crops in the spring to keep them in a vegetative state, rather than the reproductive state.
“If they hit the reproductive stage, they would stop wicking moisture, or greatly slow down wicking moisture,” he says.
The Reuschels remain committed to using cover crops, whether with strip- or no-till. They create strips in the fall, then “fluff” them again in the spring while adding nutrients. They have found the cover crops help maintain phosphorus (P) in the soil, as they haven’t added any to their fields since 2016. On the other hand, the wet seasons have caused their soil potassium (K) levels to decline in-season.
This past fall for the first time, the Reuschels strip-tilled 100% of their acres and nearly every field also had green cover crops.
In the spring, they planted soybeans into green cereal rye (standard practice for 10 years) while much of the corn was planted into a mix of some type — annual rye, triticale, and crimson clover. They ran out of time last fall to get the crimson clover planted. Andrew will also interseed covers into corn at the V4 stage — often dozens of species that he mixes himself.
“This is kind of a shotgun approach,” says Andrew. “We shoot a wide pattern of things as covers to see what sticks, and then move on from there.”
The covers that thrive in one field, from hilltop to low end, can widely differ. “I wouldn’t have learned that if I only planted three species,” he says.
Andrew Reuschel isn’t the only family member who has shifted gears. After nearly a decade as an elementary school teacher and leader in the nonprofit sector, Emily Reuschel, Andrew’s wife, has built a personal brand and business that she says empowers rural women. Reuschel says her business provides the tactical tools and supportive community for small town and farm women to gain clarity, nurture their personal and professional growth, and truly go from unsettled to unstoppable.
“I want women in rural communities and small towns to feel they can grow and flourish,” says Reuschel. “For a lot of my life, I felt like if I wanted to do big things, I needed to move to the city. I care deeply about helping rural women tap into their own potential right where they are, in the communities we know and love.”
These days, Emily appears as a keynote speaker, facilitates virtual masterminds and in-person retreats, and hosts a weekly podcast called Gather in Growth. Recent podcast episodes include topics such as:
Another fulcrum of her work is an 82-day habit challenge called YouDoYou82 that helps her community build strong habits to support their physical, mental, and emotional health.
"Start getting clear on what you actually want (or don’t want) and take steps, no matter how small, to live fully into that,” she says. “That’s chasing your dreams.”
You can connect with Emily on Instagram and facebook @emilyreuschel and at emilyreuschel.com.
Strip-tillage has also been a nice compromise between Andrew and his father, Jeff, who historically preferred some tillage ahead of corn planting. “This bridges the gap between our two mindsets,” says Andrew.
Jeff likes what Andrew has brought to the table in terms of saving money on nutrients and herbicides.
“Andrew is fine-tuning the nutrients the cover crops can provide,” says Jeff. “I’m in them for their value preventing erosion. Now he has us interseeding cover crops in the corn at the V4 stage.”
Is strip-till the new norm for this farm? “We sprinted into strip-till out of necessity because of wet springs, and now we all see the benefit of strip-till,” says Andrew. “We haven’t seen the negative side of strip-till yet, so I don’t want to say this is what I’m going to hang my hat on forever.”
Father and son worked together the past three years to build a new shop on the farm where they’ve been generating equipment prototypes for strip-till and other purposes. Andrew served five years in the U.S. Army after high school with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before returning home and attending college.
“All my life I wanted a new shop,” says Jeff. “When Andrew went into the military, I didn’t know if he was coming back to farm. There was no use for just me to expand. Now 20 to 40 years from now, we’ll look back and say we did a good job building a shop.”