No-till Continues Growing, Despite Naysayers

Farmers everywhere will need to grow more with lower carbon footprint; conservation till may be one answer

You do this job long enough, some things become predictable. Case in point: There's a growing anxiousness now, as midwest growers wait for ground to dry. Somewhat predictably, the university agronomists are cranking up the 'don't do this' press releases. That is, don't apply ammonia on wet soils, you'll just lose it. Don't mud in seed, you'll regret it. Stuff you already know but are tempted to do anyway. Wild spring weather has that kind of impact.

The break in the weather had me thinking about no-till and the holdouts out there who have tried it and still believe it won't work on their soils. Too wet, most say, and with this kind of cold, rainy spring, they may be right.

Still, no-till continues to grow. Approximately 35% of U.S. cropland (88 million acres) planted to eight major crops had no tillage operations in 2009, according to a USDA report. The crops—barley, corn, cotton, oats, rice, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat—constituted 94% of total planted U.S. acreage in 2009.  

Tillage practices affect soil carbon, water pollution, and farmers’ energy and pesticide use. Farmers who make it work sing its praises. They can't wait to tell you how they shed iron costs and lowered their diesel bills.

Moving in the direction of no-till – even if it's just vertical till or even strip-till, which is kind of a happy medium – should be on every conventional tillage farmer's radar. High fertilizer prices? No-till builds organic matter, which enables you to lower fertilizer costs because more nitrogen is released through the soil. High fuel costs? Well, you can do the math.

Todd Mooberry, Lowpoint, Ill., told me the other day he saves around $38 per acre putting on P and K with strip-till, then planting over that row using RTK technology and sidedressing N later on. Mark Jagels, Davenport, Neb., is pretty much all no-till on his 1,300-acre farm. His dad started ridge tilling 45 years ago; over the years, flood irrigation has been converted to center pivot. "There's a compelling cost savings to notill," he says. "Between water mark sensors and no-till we've saved 2 to 5 inches a year in water application. A savings of 3 inches is $1,500 per pivot, or $15,000 for 1,300 acres."

Those are just two stories out of thousands. Moving toward more sustainable systems means managing the soil differently than traditional ways. The pressure to move that 35% nationwide figure higher is only going to increase.


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