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Lings named Nobles County Conservation Farmers of the Year

BIGELOW -- It was nearly 35 years ago when Brian Ling and his dad, Tom, decided not to till up the corn stubble that remained from the preceding fall's harvest. In the midst of the 1980s farm crisis, Brian said no one was making money at farming,...

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Michelle and Brian Ling stand in a field of soybeans on their farm in Bigelow Township. The Lings began implementing no-till in their farming operation 35 years ago, and have since added cover crops and other conservation-minded options on the land they farm. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

BIGELOW - It was nearly 35 years ago when Brian Ling and his dad, Tom, decided not to till up the corn stubble that remained from the preceding fall’s harvest. In the midst of the 1980s farm crisis, Brian said no one was making money at farming, and it seemed to be a good time to take a chance and try something new.

Within a few years, all of the land the rural Bigelow men farmed had been converted to no-till.

Eliminating tillage and building up organic matter to boost soil health, combined with other efforts such as cover cropping and enrolling in the Conservation Stewardship Program, are why Brian and Michelle Ling have been named the 2018 Nobles County Conservation Farmers of the Year.

The Lings farm in Bigelow Township, but don’t own any of the land they farm. Good relationships with landowners have allowed the couple to try some more unconventional methods of farming, and it’s the land that is reaping the rewards.

Brian’s foray into no-till began when he and Tom purchased a new planter that would plant corn in soybean stubble without prior tillage.

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They were looking for a way to save money, and this was a means of cutting fuel and machinery costs. It also was a time-saver for the farmers.

“The ’80s were a good time to experiment,” Brian said. “The first year we (no-tilled) 120 acres, and it turned out pretty good.”

For the first three or four years, they only did no-till on their corn ground. Then, when John Deere introduced a no-till drill, they bought one with the intent to go completely no-till.

Brian admits they wouldn’t have been able to make the switch if it hadn’t been for guidance from Tom Ahlberg, who was also experimenting with no-till.

“We would have never figured out how to control the weeds without Tom as our agronomist,” Brian said. “We were spraying three- and five-way chemical mixes to control weeds. Then we got Roundup Ready beans, and it worked well.

“Now, Roundup stopped working and it’s a little complicated again.”

In no-till, Brian often finds weeds no one has seen before. The worst are those that crop up in late fall and return as “super weeds” in the spring. The most predominant weeds in his fields are

dandelion, mare’s tale and pennycress. Scouring rousch is another that comes back year after year.

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When the Lings implemented no-till, they went to a lot of field days and workshops to get as much information as they could. Brian also read a lot.

“A lot of it we just figured out - we just worked at it,” he said. Now, “I wouldn’t go back to tillage.”

“The soil stays put; you’re building the soil,” added Michelle.

Keeping roots in the ground has also increased water permeability.

“One of the reasons we started no-till was to conserve moisture,” Brian said. “I think we have an advantage in drought years.”

While Brian is pleased with their implementation of no-till, he said he doesn’t know if he’d be as willing, under the current state of high inputs, to experiment and start no-till from scratch.

“It takes a few years to get no-till down and make it really work for you,” said Michelle.

“The first few years are definitely a learning curve,” Brian added. “You can’t expect to get results right away in the first year. You need to accrue the benefits.”

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Adding cover crops Just last week, an airplane dropped cover crop seed on a 25-acre parcel farmed by Ling. This will be the fourth year he’s experimented with cover crops.

This fall’s mix includes oats, turnip, radish and rapeseed - nearly identical to what he tried during his first year.

“I have so many weeds to kill in the spring (due to no-till), so whatever I put out there is an annual,” Brian said.

Thus far, the Lings have had really good results with cover crops, particularly in corn fields.

“I would have liked to do a lot more mixes this year, but it’s hard to compare when you have so many drown-outs,” he said.

One day, Brian wants to have a cover crop on every square inch of the land he farms, but seeding remains a major issue. Aerial seeding is expensive, and Ling has noticed his cover crop is often spotty, though he’s still working to figure out why.

Karen Boysen at the NRCS office in Worthington has helped with cover crop selection. Brian also works with NRCS on his Conservation Stewardship Program. In CSP for seven years, the Lings have received incentives to implement drift-reducing spray nozzles and stabilizers in nitrogen fertilizer, and to keep records of spraying and field scouting.
Brian has incorporated GPS technology into his farming operation, and uses a tram system in which his planting, spraying and harvest equipment always follows the same path through the field, thereby reducing compaction.

Reaping the benefits Brian is the third-generation Ling to farm the land in Bigelow Township. He does most of the work himself, although Michelle steps in to help when needed. The couple has two grown sons - Jeff, an industrial engineer at Bedford Industries in Worthington, and Alex, studying for his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota.

“I could not do what I’m doing alone if I was doing conventional (tillage),” Brian said. “(No-till) does save on labor. It makes a one-man operation easier to run.”

Both NRCS and SWCD staff have visited the Ling farm to conduct permeability tests, study roots and examine soil health.

Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager John Shea said Ling’s name rose to the top when his board considered this year’s honoree.

“He’s been no-till forever,” Shea said. “We haven’t worked with him on a lot of soil erosion practices because he’s kind of taken care of himself.

“He does have some sediment basins that his father put in, and those have outlasted their expected lifespan because of the practices he does out there with not moving the soil,” Shea added. “He’s willing to try different things for water quality and to enhance yield, but not till the ground.”

The Lings will be recognized during the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts’ annual meeting in mid-December.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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