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Agriculture Technology Podcast 165: NoTill Farming with Technology

20 Apr 2022

Meet Kari Olson, a fourth-generation farmer from Hawley, MN.

Kari, along with her dad, Rob, produce corn, soybeans, and spring wheat. They are fully no-till and have been experimenting with cover crops for the past several years - which is very unique in the Red River Valley.

For Kari and her family, They continue to follow no-till farming practices because, according to Kari, it is important, “To make sure the land we are given is in equal or better care than when we got it.”

This week's episode of the podcast discusses the ways in which technology can help growers, no matter the farming practices they use.

Watch: Kari and her family discuss their long-term commitment to No-Till Farming

You can find past podcast episodes by visiting our Podcast website

Have precision ag questions? We have the answers. Find a specific channel dedicated to answering your precision technology questions: Precision Ag Answers. 


View the full transcript:

Kari: Sure. I'm a fourth-generation farmer here in Hawley, Minnesota, I farm with my dad, Rob, and we produce corn, soybeans, and spring wheat. We are fully no-till and we've been experimenting with cover crops for about seven years now. I got my degree from North Dakota State in 2018 in [unintelligible 00:00:42] with a minor in crop and weed, and yes, came back to the farm as soon as I was done with school.

Tony: Awesome. Let's dive into the show right away, Kari. Your dad started farming with his father or maybe it was even before that?

Kari: Yes. A unique part of our farm is we actually farm both of my dad's grandparent's land. My grandma's grandparents, they homesteaded in 1872 out in [unintelligible 00:01:11], which is about 10 miles southeast of here. Then, my great grandparents bought some land, just west of town here in the '30s. Then my grandpa came out of the service, bought the main farm in the 60s. Dad came out of college in the '80s.

Interest rates were high, job market was tough, he came home and farmed, and bought some land and they formed the corporation we have today, [unintelligible 00:01:32] farms in 2000. Now I joined about 2018 was when I became full-time. We're currently in the process of me purchasing the corporation. It's exciting.

Tony: There you go. Handing over to the fourth generation. That's pretty awesome. In your intro, you mentioned the fact that you guys are fully no-till, let's talk before we get into the technology that you guys use on the farm, talk a little bit about the process of moving no-till. No-till farming is kind of-

Kari: It's a long process.

Kari: -unique. Yes, unique, especially in this area. In the Red River Valley or on the outer edges of the Red River Valley, no-till is not a common practice in this area. Let's just, very briefly, go through why did dad make that decision to go to no-till? When did that all start? When did it happen?

Kari: Yes, he started the process about 18 years ago. His dad and him were arguing over the perfect soybean bed following a corn crop. They just felt that each tillage pass they were making was making the ground worse. He had done some research and heard of some local farmers I guess, in North Dakota, experimenting with no-till and making it work. He's like, "Let's give it a try." They did on their soybean ground and it worked. They got that desirable seedbed, but they also had lower inputs. They're maintaining their profitability. It was a no-brainer for them. They stuck with that. Then I think about 10 years ago is when they switched to wheat.

I think that was about the time they invested in a no-till drill and that really made a difference, quite an investment, but probably the best decision he's ever made. Then the last step was corn. A lot of where some of that technology that we use on our farm comes from is we did strip-till for three years prior to converting to no-till and so, a lot of keeping the row straight, things like that, is where the technology hopped on. We just had to go full no-till when we lost some of our labor and got out of [unintelligible 00:03:40] and so, that's when we made the jump.

Tony: Yes. You mentioned a number of different things that, one, it's a long-term process. It's not just, "Hey, let's try it for a year or two." This is a long-term commitment and you talked about 18 years ago, and then there was a timeframe of 10 years ago with another crop. It's not just something that you're going to dive in and try for a year or two.

Kari: It's gradual.

Tony: Yes, gradual, long-term. Then you talked about, and that's a perfect segue right into the next conversation is talking about some of the technology and you mentioned strip-till. Prior to going full no-till, you guys were doing strip-till for a number of different reasons, but the technology being utilized. The first one, auto truck. Auto truck, it's common on a lot of farms. I shouldn't say most farms, there's still a number of firms that don't utilize it, but it's more common today in agriculture than it was 10,15, 20 years ago.

Auto truck is not just driving straight for you guys. There's more to it than that. Let's talk a little bit about how auto truck is important for you guys on your farm and what it means. It's not just the factor of driving straight, there's more to it than that. Let's dive in a little bit more about no-till farming specifically and the benefits to utilizing auto truck.

Kari: Yes, I think one of the things I admire most about my dad and my grandpa is they were always one step ahead or thinking ahead of what the movements going to or progressing before the change. That was one of the first big pieces of technology he implemented was auto truck. He had a two-truck tractor and that was the only thing they could put it on at that point. He would have that in the '90s. Anyways, we practice controlled traffic on our farm. Everything's on 40 feet, everything drives on the same trucks. For us, it's we want to limit the compaction to just those areas on the farm.

Our grain cart, they're only allowed to drive on those trucks, we're very particular on eliminating that compaction in other areas, because in soil health, if you have compaction, you eliminate that pore space where water can infiltrate and air but also, where our microorganisms are and they help fix nitrogen, or they use [unintelligible 00:06:09] nutrients. If they're not helping us, if we're destroying their environment, then they're not helping our plants grow, and we're not having that healthy soil. That was huge for us.

We do see some sidewall compaction on some of those trucks, things like that. Also, here's part of no-till which I'll admit that this is pretty stupid to me but I did not know what a marker was because I had been in no-till and that's all I've ever known. My dad said that auto truck eliminated the use of markers because you can't see where a marker goes in a no-till field so, yes.

Tony: Yes, that's actually really cool. I never thought about that, that, yes, putting a marker down and no-till isn't really going to do a whole lot for us.

Kari: No, no.

Tony: There's many benefits to it. Again, the general agriculture population, they think of auto truck is just driving straight, making sure our roads are straight. One of the things I think is really unique with you guys is that controlled traffic. Even the grain carts, when the grain cart is loaded or empty, they are on specific lines, specific trucks, they're not just willy nilly all over the place.

Kari: Yes. That's huge for us.

Tony: I wouldn't say some notions at some conventional tillage farms do practice controlled traffic, but it's not common.

Kari: We also only take like half loads on the grain cart. We're very particular. Growing up, running the grain cart, I didn't understand why dad was so picky but I definitely do now. In another part of auto truck, I think a lot of people think, "Oh, we just sit there and let that drive us all day, and we don't do anything." Having that auto truck has allowed me to focus on other parts of the combine or the planter. We can make sure that we're planting the same depth and that the spacing is good, or residue management behind the combine or the settings, making sure we're getting a clean sample and things like that. It's just allowed me to not to focus on just driving but focus on efficiency of the piece of equipment.

Tony: Absolutely, there is just much more than just driving straight. There's a lot of pieces that go into it and no matter the type of farming practices you're using, whether you're conventional till, you're no-till, you're strip-ill, doesn't matter what you're doing, auto truck can benefit you in many different ways. The next thing I want to dive into, Kari, is variable-rate seeding. You guys are using variable-rate seeding across the farm for multiple different crops. Let's talk a little bit about that and why it's important, again, in your no-till practices to make sure you're getting the right population of seed in the right areas.

Kari: Yes. We variable-rate seed our corn and our soybeans at this point. We do our own maps and so we pull our information from the previous years for yield for corn, or we do a combination of yield and topography for soybeans. It's just making sure we get the right amount of seed in those right areas, making sure that we're being cost-effective and maintaining that profitability, and being as efficient as possible on our acres. Yes, that's how we've utilized the operation center is making our own prescriptions every year. Another thing is because we are no-till and we do some cover crops, being able to pull that information, yield information and see our trials that we've done with these cover crops, you know, "Is this clover adding maybe some nitrogen that we're picking up on or maybe we need to do something different because we're losing a little bit yield here," or different things like that where we've been experimenting planting corn with the drill. Being able to record that information of all these trials that we're doing is huge.

Tony: That's a big thing. The variable rate seating, so there again, no matter the farming practices you're utilizing or tillage practices, variable-rate seating can play a beneficial role. Then moving to that next step. The next thing I want to talk about was the operation center, collecting that data, knowing where you're benefiting, knowing where things are hurting, again, it doesn't matter if you're conventional till no-till, strip-till, minimal till, whatever you want to do, this is all going to benefit you.

Let's talk a little bit more about utilizing the operation center. How much data you guys are collecting and how you're utilizing that. One of the ways you're utilizing it is to build those prescriptions, those variable rate prescriptions. What are some other ways that you're able to utilize the operation center and the data collected to make educated decisions for the years to come?

Kari: I would say a lot of my seed decisions come from the operations center. We record all of our data from the previous year and I take it out. What we do in the corn planter, at least, is we do side-by-side trials so half the planter has one variety, half has the other. Usually, they're the same, different companies, but same maturity. We compare them and then we'll choose maybe that one for next year and then compare it against another. We're always trying to get the best varieties out there. Things like that.

Tony: That's, again, lot of different ways to utilize the operation center. One of the things I know prior to us talking about recording this podcast, there's a lot of people out there that have a skewed perception on no-till farming, that it's a very basic way of farming. You don't utilize technology, you don't have, let's say new or current equipment. They might think of it as maybe a lazy way of farming because, "Well, hey, I don't have to till the ground, I just seed it and combine it, that it." That is exactly why I wanted to record this episode is because I wanted to kind of squash that bug.

Kari: Yes.

Tony: There is a lot of benefits to utilizing Ag technology, no matter the farming practices. Are there any other types of equipment or any are technologies that you guys are utilizing that definitely plays a role in your no-till farming practices?

Kari: Yes. I would say two huge things would be section control, number one. That has allowed us to control our costs, but also avoid overlapping and things like that. Our other one is we've made quite an investment in power cast, tailboard spreader, just because if you want to do no-till, it starts the year before, and you got to get your residue management, but not only spread it the full 40 feet but spread it evenly or we're going to have issues the next spring. Those have been two huge things for us.

Tony: I'm really glad you said that because that is one of the things that I tell people, you ask the question of, "When does the cropping season start"? Most people say, "Oh, spring tillage pass, or when I put the seed in the ground," but it is very true that seeding or the crop season for next year begins with the combine pass. Doesn't matter what that combine is harvesting, but how it's harvesting it and how you are placing that residue or how you're managing your residue.

Kari: Yes.

Tony: Making sure, so with an advanced Power cast tailboard or whatever, you're making sure, and I actually did an episode on residue management back a few episodes ago, making sure your residue management lines up with the width of your head and other things like that. In no-till, you made the comment that residue management is even more important because you need to make sure that it's getting spread evenly and you're not balling up in certain areas. Little less forgiving with conventional tillage, obviously because you're coming with one or two or maybe even three tillage passes to spread that out. You guys aren't doing that.

Kari: We don't get that opportunity.

Tony: Having that residue management at the back of the combine is very vital to what you guys are doing. Really cool to hear that story and then a section control too. You had mentioned section control is very important for your farm. Much like a conventional tillage practice or conventional farming, it, again, very important to reduce the input cost, making sure you're not overlapping, making sure those seeds aren't competing.

Now, the last thing I just want to ask you, Kari is, is there any success story that you'd like to share with us? Maybe it was a piece of equipment that you purchased like, well, the combine, I believe it's new on this combine, so you haven't gotten to see it yet, but is there any other piece of equipment that made a large impact in the farm or maybe a tech piece of technology that made that impact? Is there anything on the farm like that?

Kari: I alluded back to that with the 1890 air drill that my dad had purchased years ago, but now we have the 1895 and that is by far, my favorite piece of equipment on the farm. Just like all of this technology that we've talked about, I'm all about efficiency, and having a piece of equipment that can do multiple jobs, that's my favorite. That's our seeding tool, it does our soybeans and it does our wheat. It's our fertilizer tool, it's our cover crop tool.

I'm all about having things that can do multiple things and that's maybe why I'm trying to get away from the corn planters because the corn planter just does one job and being we're not a huge farm, if I can become more profitable by running one machine and keeping that machine up to date and keeping efficient, that I'm all for it.

Tony: That is awesome. It's really unique. I heard you mention earlier in the episode here that you guys are experimenting with putting corn down with the air seeder, really unique, operation for the air seeder. I'm curious to see what the outcome of that is going to be and how it's going to progress from here. You're absolutely right. The no-till, single disk no-till drill or air seeder 1895, or what you guys have now, very versatile tool.

You're doing your seating. You're doing your fertilizer, your cover crops. You can use it for many different operations. I would agree with you, that is probably a very, very crucial tool on your farm. The last thing I want to ask you, Kari, with the knowledge you guys have, you've been doing no-till for 18 years on the farm, if somebody is curious about no-till operations or maybe dabbling in strip-till operations, things like that, what are some resources? Where can they go? Who can they talk to, to learn more about some of these different types of farming practices outside of conventional farming?

Kari: I would say a lot of it comes down to building a network, attending a lot of meetings, meeting people, but also, NDSU does a great job. I work a lot with Dr. Abbey Wick up there and she not only has the information herself, but she has such a network of people that she can guide you in that direction. I would definitely, definitely get in contact with her. I'm sure her information's out there.

Tony: I would agree, the contacts, the networks, I know there's a number of people all throughout the United States, I would imagine the world, that are making connections, sharing information. You mentioned NDSU and Dr. Abbey Wick, the network of soil health information that's out there, they've done a great job. Yes, great resources, lot of people, extension agencies, things like that. I just want to say thank you, Kari, for taking the time to come in, sit down and chat with me about no-till farming practices and then why it's important to be utilizing some of the technology that you guys have to better these no-till practices. Thanks again for doing this.

Kari: Thanks for having me.

Tony: Please take a moment to subscribe to the show if you haven't already and share us with your friends.

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