Families Growing Our Food: Father-Son Dynamic Farming Duo

Husker Home Place

No-till farming and the ability to modify their machinery have helped the Dvoraks conserve soil on their rolling Colfax County farm.

Published on: March 1, 2013

Curt's Comments:   Farmers are often maligned for caring only about profits, and little about the soil. Personally, I have found the opposite to be true. Farmers today understand the soil and the importance of the soil more than ever before. That's why farmers have adopted no-till systems so readily. My case in point is the Dvorak farm. When I first visited the Dvoraks for a story that ran in our December 2011 print issue, I was impressed by the size and efficiency of their farm shop. But after talking with Mike and his son Chris, I understood why they needed that shop. They are not only farmers, but inventors. Mike has the no-till philosophy of protecting the soil, reducing tillage and input costs and making the land more productive. Chris has the engineering capabilities to invent new efficiencies in their equipment that will make the machinery work better under challenging no-till conditions. They are truly a dynamic duo. Here is their story…

NO-TILL INVENTORS: Mike Dvorak (left) and his son, Chris, are innovators, modifying their planter to cut through high cornstalk residue.
NO-TILL INVENTORS: Mike Dvorak (left) and his son, Chris, are innovators, modifying their planter to cut through high cornstalk residue.

Colfax County farmers, Chris Dvorak, and his father Mike, are true innovators. When they purchased their corn and soybean planter five years ago, they were satisfied with the machine, but found ways to customize this key piece of equipment to make it work better in their no-till operation.

As the family gained experience in no-till farming, which was adopted to protect the soil from erosion by not tilling it in an invasive way and leaving precious crop residue in place, their philosophy changed. "It has gotten so that I hate disturbing the soil at all, even grading center pivot irrigation tracks," Mike Dvorak says.

The family uses their personally-modified planter to cover around 1500 acres of no-till corn and soybeans each year. While the Dvoraks have been on the cutting edge of technology, Mike says that Chris is carrying that to the next level. "Chris is in tune with the technology part of production," he says.

Chris, who obtained a mechanized systems management degree from the University of Nebraska, returned home to farm with his family. "It's been a great foundation for working with the technology and the systems that we have today," Chris Dvorak says. "Even in the short time since graduation, technology in agriculture has been and will continue exploding and we have to keep up and keep learning."

Dvorak put his degree to work, utilizing their well-equipped farm shop, to make important changes to the planter so it would cut through heavy stalk residue and hold the row in their rolling fields.

~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~"Farmers must understand how a piece of equipment works and then not be afraid of changing it to improve its performance," says UNL Extension engineer, Paul Jasa. "They need to understand the strengths or weaknesses of the equipment and then correct the weaknesses."

When they began no-till farming in 1996 because of a desire to save the soil and save on fuel by reducing passes through the field, they were familiar with the basic row unit on IH planters. But heavy cornstalk residue left in the field under no-till conditions is a challenge, compared to conventional fields where that residue to disked into the soil.

While no single innovation is more useful than others, there are several modifications the Dvoraks made to their planter to make it more efficient. "We have 100% GPS control and mapping on the planter," Chris says. He customized an old guidance system from a cultivator to work in concert with the planter markers to keep the planter and tractor off the former corn rows when planting soybeans into corn residue, providing better seed-to-soil contact without interference from the residue. He converted standard double-wheel residue movers to a single-wheel version. He also built a starter fertilizer system that places one third of the fertilizer in the furrow and the other two thirds behind the closing disks, to reduce salt contact with the seed.

Dvorak installed row shut-offs for seed and starter fertilizer, along with hydraulic drives to run the seed. This allows him to more precisely place seed and fertilizer without wasting these expensive inputs. "I have also built a custom pneumatic down-pressure system that has control in the cab of the tractor," Dvorak says. "These features are useful in our variable rate planting prescriptions for our many different soil types and on irrigated land and dryland areas" where Dvorak can change the planting population so he is seeding more thickly on the most fertile land, and cutting back on less fertile land that will not produce as well.

He says that working with his father has made for a good team effort at implementing new practices. "We are continuing to use soil tests and have fine-tuned our fertilizer variable rate application," Dvorak says. "Desktop software and GPS mapping have made all of this possible."

"The Dvoraks are using new, old and self-invented modifications to improve their planter and control inputs on-the-go while planting," Jasa says. "Recognizing and addressing variability is needed to improve profitability while reducing risks."

But the Dvoraks are not satisfied with their success. Looking to the future, they hope to expand acres to bring the next generation into the operation. "I want to continue to stay up to date with technologies and new practices, implementing what we see to be the right fit for our farm," Chris says.

If you like this story or learned something you didn't know by reading it, please pass it on to someone interested in farmers and food production. Be sure to watch the last Friday of every month at Husker Home Place for more stories about the families growing our food. Next month I'll feature Danny and Josie Kluthe of Dodge, Neb., who were awarded the Nebraska Pork Producers Association Environmental Stewardship Award this past week for their work using a methane digester to render their manure lagoon odorless and to convert hog manure from their swine operation into methane that generates electricity powering up to 50 homes.