Crop farming often requires patience. For farmers who use conservation practices, like no-till planting, this is especially true. “I have to wait on Mother Nature to let our soil dry out enough to be able to plant it,” says David Ransbottom, third-generation farmer and co-owner of Ransbottom Farms. “But the clock is ticking.”
Together with his father, brother, and oldest son, Ransbottom farms about 2,600 acres of corn and soybeans outside Claypool, Indiana. They want to plant as early as possible to give their crops a good start, but spring in northern Indiana can be unpredictable. Soils can take longer to warm up and dry out. Running a disk through wet ground can speed up the process, Ransbottom explains, but it wrecks soil structure and risks compaction. “I have to have the patience not to go out there before it’s fit.”
The Ransbottoms farm on rolling ground with a wide variety of soil types, from heavy clay to sandy loam to muck. Years ago, when the family tilled their ground before planting, spring rains caused the clay soils to form a crust as hard as concrete. Concentrated water flows carved gullies in other fields, washing away topsoil. “It’s nice we had an excavating company,” Ransbottom jokes, “because we could just use our bulldozers to push the dirt back in. But it’s like, there’s got to be a better way. So we started no-tilling.”
They began with soybeans in the 1990s, then corn several years later, and they saw positive results. Their yields were just as good and sometimes better than when they were tilling. Soil structure improved. Erosion decreased. “We never looked back,” says Ransbottom.
Over the years, they’ve added other conservation farming practices, including cover crops, grassed waterways, and two-stage ditches with filter strips. Each of these practices plays a role in supporting soil health on their farm. Cover crops, for example, help hold the soil in place, and two-stage ditches help widen and slow the flow of water. Both protect against erosion. Filter strips help keep sediment and nutrients out of surrounding waterways. Those practices work together to protect their land and surrounding waterways.
Ransbottom explains the land-water connection simply: “Our farm ground filters rainwater,” he says. “How we manage it affects whether that water is going to infiltrate or run off into the ditches and down to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Still he understands, from his own experience, that changing how you farm requires risk management. “It’s a leap of faith,” he says. That’s why his family adopted conservation practices gradually, in a deliberate, data-driven way. They needed to see for themselves that the changes they made would fit their operation and needs.
This kind of farming comes back to patience, Ransbottom says. After more than 20 years, healthy soils are something they can truly see. They see less erosion and better yields, but they also see life in the soil. “If I go out and dig a trench four or five feet in this field here, we’ll find nightcrawler channels going all the way to the bottom.”
“The land is our livelihood,” Ransbottom says. “I want my land to be as productive as possible. If it’s more profitable and it’s better for the environment, then it’s a win for everybody.”
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