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Continuing a no-till tradition

Continuing a no-till tradition


Thirty-five years ago, the late Deane McCunn starred in a video documenting his transition to no-till farming. Today, McCunn would have been very proud of his grandson. Jason McCunn of rural Red Oak is continuing what his grandpa started by keeping his farm equipment aboveground and leaving the soil undisturbed on the family’s Montgomery County farm.

Jason says he recently found out his grandpa and great-uncle Lyle worked with USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service) to develop the 15-minute video. Jason even continues to use the same tractor, a John Deere 4000, the McCunn brothers used in the video.

“I remember my dad, Mike, telling me they [Deane and Lyle] were two of the first farmers in the area to adopt and use no-till,” says Jason. “I never realized it was that big of a deal until the local NRCS office made me aware of the video.”

In 1982, Lyle passed away suddenly, leaving Deane to farm with his sons, Mike and Mark. The three farmed together until 1993, when they began leasing the farm to neighbors. But in 2007, Jason returned to southwest Iowa to farm the family’s land after serving several years in the U.S. Air Force.

“I decided a long time ago that I was going to come back here to farm,” Jason says. “I’m proud that this farm has been no-tilled since the video came out in 1980.”

Jason says continuing the family’s no-till legacy is important. Many of the reasons to use no-till today are the same as they were 35 years ago. “Especially when there’s a 6- to 7-inch rain,” he notes. “If you drive around the area, the tilled fields have ditches full of soil. You’re losing a lot of soil and nutrients when that happens. Iowa needs more no-till to keep the soil in the field and out of the ditches.”

Along with the erosion control benefits, Jason says no-till continues to be a cost savings measure. “With fewer passes through the field, I’m saving money on fuel,” he adds. “I’m also conserving soil moisture by not disking it up and drying out the top soil layer.”

Jason is also realizing how no-till improves soil health. He can tell by the way microorganisms in the soil feed off the crop residue. “I’m not disturbing the microorganisms in the soil,” he says. “I know I’ve got them working, since the cornstalks are usually eaten away and converted to organic matter by the next crop year.”

Complementing no-till

Jason emphasizes that his hilly ground needs more than just no-till to keep the soil from washing off the field. His more than 300 acres are also protected from erosion with terraces, grassed waterways, field borders, contour buffer strips and even a riparian forest buffer.

With a small cow-calf operation, he says keeping the conservation practices well-maintained is critical. “I include alfalfa in my crop rotation, but I’m finding that wider headlands [field borders] and wider grass waterways benefit me because I can feed that forage to my animals, too.”

Jason recalls his grandpa and great-uncle growing alfalfa on about half of their crop acres. “My grandpa never had cattle, so along with generating some money by selling hay as a cash crop, that crop rotation also helped improve the soil,” he says. “Each year I gain a little more alfalfa ground, so I guess I’m coming back around to the way they did it.”

Future of family farm

Jason and his wife have a son and two daughters. He’s unsure if the farming itch will be passed on to another generation. “My son is starting to help me out more on the farm,” he says. “I’d like all of our kids to go to college and earn a degree. If, after that, they want to come back and farm, hopefully, they will have that opportunity.” And if they do, you can bet they will be no-tilling.

A new video of Jason carrying on the family’s no-till tradition is at

Also, to read more conservation success stories that are taking place on the land in Iowa today, go online to It should also be noted that 35 years ago Wallaces Farmer ran an article featuring Deane and Lyle McCunn and their switch to no-till.

Johnson is a public affairs specialist for USDA/NRCS in Des Moines.


STILL NO-TILL: Jason McCunn of rural Red Oak began farming the family’s land eight years ago, continuing the no-till tradition his grandfather and great-uncle started in 1980.


NO GULLIES: On the McCunn farm, grassed waterways help prevent gully erosion and supplement livestock feed by providing forage.

This article published in the February, 2016 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2016.

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