LAKEFIELD — Farming practices in Hungary today are similar to what they were in the United States in the 1970s, with moldboard and chisel plowing used predominantly for tillage and weed control.
The deep tillage has caused significant destruction to the soil, but there is hope to rebuild organic matter, as a team of 10 Hungarian visitors are learning during their 12-day, multi-state educational tour across the Midwest. On Thursday, the group stopped at the rural Lakefield farm of Jerry and Nancy Ackermann, where cover crops and no-till are proving to be successful tools to improve soil health and organic matter. The group is also meeting with University of Minnesota Extension educators and precision farming researchers along their route.
The group is comprised of three larger crop farmers and seven representatives from Agrofil, a Hungarian-based agribusiness hoping to be at the forefront of introducing reduced tillage technologies to the country’s farmers. They arrived in the U.S. a week ago, and visited Extension educators and crop scientists at Purdue University in Indiana, stopped at several farms in Wisconsin and met with University of Minnesota Extension staff in the Twin Cities before making their way to southwest Minnesota. The rest of their journey includes meetings with Extension educators and stops at land grant universities in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, according to Leanna Leverich, a U of M PhD student in precision agriculture, who was accompanying them on the journey.
“A smaller group of Hungarians came to visit the University of Minnesota last summer and stopped by to see if they could learn something from the land grant institutions about research,” Leverich said. That visit led to an invitation from the leader of Agrofil for Leverich and another PhD student from the U of M, along with Extension professors in the Midwest, to speak at a conference in Hungary last winter about precision agriculture, drones, cover crops and no-till.
“Now they’re back ... to learn from Minnesota and the Midwest’s best and brightest farmers,” she added. “In Hungary, they plow pretty deeply. This is a very different situation for them. They’re on the edge, using drone imagery and testing their soils to do variable rates, and trying to get into no-till.”
“We feel our cultivation system is not the right way,” said farmer Attila Szeredi. “Our soil has been destroyed because of over-cultivation, fertilizer and using chemicals. We wanted to learn how we have to (fix) that.
“We have no organization like Extension to advise farmers what to do on their fields,” he added.
Szeredi said there is a group of about 30 smaller farmers in Hungary who are doing trials with cover crops and no-till on plots of 10 to 15 hectares (24 to 37 acres).
“I have a friend who started six years ago and has a field with very good results,” Szeredi said, explaining that he had three test plots — one using a moldboard plow, the second a chisel plow and the third no-till — all using the same chemical and fertilizer treatments. The fields where plowing and chisel plowing were done ended up with dried-out soil and brown corn stalks. The third field, using no-till, produced corn plants that were green from bottom to top.
“It was good proof for us,” he said.
Szeredi, who studied with the University of Minnesota in 1991-1992 at Balaton, said it was his hope during this visit to learn how to implement strip-till and no-till on his farm. While durum wheat is his primary crop, he also raises sunflowers, rapeseed, peas, poppies and garlic. He believes cover crops can be worked into his sunflower and rapeseed fields.
László Kovács, operative coordinator for Agrofil, said with no-till and cover crops just starting to be implemented in Hungary, the research company wants to be a forerunner in the field and educate farmers.
“We need to learn in order to be the leaders in this field,” Kovács said.
Last year, Agrofil had more than 300,000 small research plots, doing research on crop protection — everything from fertilizer to chemical application rates. The company grows sunflowers, winter wheat, corn and rapeseed.
“We are not allowed to do GM (genetically-modified) crops. That’s why we have different issues than you have here,” Kovács said, noting that farmers there deal with heavy weed pressure.
“It used to be the point of view 100 years ago that farmers should do deep tillage five to seven times a year," he added. It is not the case now, but it is our history. We now plow once a year."
Several farmers were on hand at the Ackerman farm to share their reduced tillage and cover cropping experiences with the Hungarian guests. Among them was Perry Cranston, who has just begun using strip tillage and cover crops in his farming operation.
“I was getting tired of what we’re doing to the soil by continuously trying to work it deep in the fall and work it again in the spring,” Cranston said of his decision to try strip tillage.
He was seeing erosion where he’d never had erosion before, and was having problems with soil compaction. Seeing what was happening on farms around him, Cranston said he’s now leaving more residue on his fields and keeping the roots in the ground “where they belong.”
“When they rot, it’s pathways for the air and the water to go down,” he said. “Maybe it will reduce a lot of the ponding we’re seeing and reduce compaction.”
Cranston did strip tillage on about 500 acres of corn and soybeans this spring, and plans to strip-till about 1,800 acres this fall, in addition to doing strip-till for other farmers in the area.
As for cover crops, Cranston may be planting some cereal rye in early September, hoping to capitalize on the hog manure he applies in strips on the land. The cereal rye will hold in the nitrogen from the manure to best benefit the corn crop.
“We’re going to walk before we run on cover crops,” he said.