Knox County farmers reflect on nearly five decades of no-till

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio — There are few tools as important and symbolic to farming as the plow.

In one form or another, the plow has persisted across most generations of agriculture — from the horse-drawn hoes and “scratch” tillers used by ancient peoples, to the modern moldboard of the past 200-300 years.

After all, if you’re going to plant, you need to loosen the soil and prepare the seedbed, and what could be a more logical first step than turning the old over, and revealing new?

Not turning it over at all, say guys like crops specialist Bill Haddad and two farmers from Knox County, which some call the “no-till capital of the world.”

Recalls the challenge

Haddad, who works for the farm chemical company Valent, still remembers the negative reaction farmers had when he and others tried to initiate no-till in Ohio 40 years ago.

Then working for the Chevron Chemical Co., Haddad was charged with the task of helping conventional farmers make the transition. And there was nothing easy about it.

“It was not an easy project because you were changing something that was so traditional and so old,” he said. “Telling them to throw the plow out was like trying to tell them to throw their mother out.”

He remembers a time he was working with farmers in Ohio’s Columbiana County, to help them transition to no-till. All they knew was the plow and conventional tillage, and they were doubtful anything could grow without tillage, especially the eldest farmer, who was in his 80s.

“He said ‘Mr. Haddad, I’ll eat my hat right now if that seed will ever get through that trash,’” Haddad recalled.

But the old farmer turned out to be wrong, as the seed not only germinated and grew, but very prolifically, to the point his criticism turned to praise, and the farmer became one of Haddad’s best advocates of no-till.

Just as common

After countless presentations and field days, and many more conversations among producers and chemical and equipment dealers, the technology would finally take root, to the point no-till became about as commonplace as tillage.

“Today, everybody just assumes it’s just another way to farm,” Haddad said.

At the Jim Braddock crop farm near Fredericktown, Ohio, no-till has been the way of the land since the 1970s. The benefits are many — reduced erosion, reduced labor and tillage costs and less fuel cost from fewer trips across the fields.

“If you lose dirt, you’re losing fertility,” Braddock said, adding soil is something that can’t be replaced, at least not in one generation’s time.

He figures that to use tillage on all his farm, it would cost him an additional $200,000 in other equipment.

Going for it all

Braddock’s goal is to be as close to 100 percent no-till as he can, but he admits 100 percent is not obtainable because soils and soil conditions differ from farm to farm, and from year to year.

Ed Piar, a no-till crop farmer from southern Knox County, just outside Brandon, Ohio, said he hasn’t owned a field disc in 25 years. But he bought one this year to level out some ruts from a wet harvest in the fall, and to break up some chisel plowed sod.

Although more than half of his acreage is in no-till, he still uses conventional tillage as a way of controlling slugs and other insects, and to help speed the drying process of wet ground.

He said there are so many philosophies used in Knox County that no one is really right or wrong, they just use what works best for their individual farms.

“Everybody’s right,” he said, “but everybody’s different.”

He figures no-till probably saves him a third of the trips across the field, and a lot of topsoil.

In the beginning

He and others in the county gave no-till a try in the ’70s, after livestock farms decreased in number and more rolling pastures were being turned into production crops. Because of the hills, the land eroded easily.

“They (farmers) realized that they were either going to have to strip it or no-till it, or it was all going to wash away,” he said.

He and his father, Don, now 80, chose no-till.

Open to innovation

Piar and Braddock also are making use of another once-misunderstood technology — the use of yield monitors, global positioning sensors for tractors and other innovations of the computer era.

Both farmers have yield monitors on their combines, which tell them yield per acre, and allow them to compare one variety of seed to another, or one area of a field to another.

Their monitors make a data entry every two to three seconds, and when they’re at a good stopping place, they remove the memory cards and take them to their local Ohio State University Extension agent — John Barker — who uses a software program to print results.

Braddock has been using a yield monitor for about 20 years, he figures, but admits that when he first started, he had no idea where it would lead. Now, he and Piar use them to help plan the correct amount of fertilizer needed, for different parts of their fields.

Different fields, different soils

That’s important technology, they said, because one field is often different from another, and there can be several different soil types just within one field.

And as far as testing varieties, the monitor helps them prove what really works on their own farm, and what doesn’t.

“Just because the company says it’s (another variety) better, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better,” Braddock said. “Just because it works for the neighbor, doesn’t mean it works for me.”

But one thing that is working for farmers in this area is technology, and it’s an investment they say has paid for itself in many ways.

“I think both of those fellows as well as some other guys in the county are really sold on how this technology can make their farms better,” Barker said.

Braddock figures with today’s high cost for fertilizer, he saves close to $90 an acre because he applies it at a variable rate, based off yield results from previous years.

Multiplied by the couple thousand or so acres he farms, those savings become substantial.

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

One Comment

  1. Chris,
    this is a fantastic article that puts in the human side of this phenomenal change in agriculture. Unfortunately the adoption rate of “continuous no-till” is still very low in the US. It is in the 5-10% range. Lots of farmers do their beans no-till but not their corn. Many till every few years. It is a very complicated issue and the extent to which ag land is rented has a lot to do with it (no-till is a long-term investment, do you do that on rented land?)

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