No-till pioneers from two continents highlight tillage conference

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — Nearly 150 farmers from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York interested in no-till farming gathered to share their knowledge and pick up some new tips at the 12th annual Tri-State No-Till Conference last week in West Middlesex.

Franke Dijkstra, a pioneer of no-till farming in Brazil, and Steve Groff, billed as Pennsylvania’s own cover crop system farmer, were keynote speakers at the event.

By way of Brazil

Dijkstra and his two teen grandsons represented Parana state in southern Brazil to share the story of how their farm, Fazenda Franke’Anna, has adapted since the family came to South America from The Netherlands in the 1950s.

Today the farm encompasses some 4,000 acres of cropland, all farmed using no-till methods, along with a 1,000-head dairy.

In the years since Dijkstra’s childhood, he and his family have used trial and error to figure out how to best protect their soils from the deep ditches Brazilian erosion can cause, and to improve their soil makeup. Those goals have been accomplished by using no-till, cover crops and crop rotation.

The family was one of the first in Brazil to try their hands at the no-till system.

“In 1976, when we tried no-till, it changed the whole scenery,” Dijkstra said. “The [ditches] were gone. The land looked better.”

Today, some 25.5 million hectares of land in Brazil (63 million acres) use no-till methods, the farmer said.

Proper management and an enviable climate allows the Dijkstras and other Brazilian farmers to raise three cuttings of forage followed by two summer and one winter crop of grain every year. Managing the soil is key to production.

“No-till works on every kind of farm and in every kind of soil,” Dijkstra said. “The limits of no-till are only between the ears.”

“The limits of no-till are only between the ears.”

Franke Dijkstra

Brazilian no-till pioneer

Lancaster County

Steve Groff, who farms 200 acres of vegetables and cover crops on the family farm in Lancaster County, Pa., credited Dijkstra for his pioneering ways, many of which Groff has put into practice on his operation over the past 10 years. He’s also implemented lessons he’s picked up in travels to Germany and France, he said.

The operation relies on no-till, cover crops and intense rotation to increase profits while managing the soil and weed pressure. For instance, Groff plants his yearly crops of sweet corn, tomatoes or pumpkins directly into standing cover crops like rye, tillage radishes or sunflowers.

“By using plants to prepare the soil for seeding, you get better, more consistent emergence. The trick is getting the seed to the ground,” he said. The method also requires extra attention to planter setup and wear and tear, he said.

But there’s a huge payback: In Lancaster County, where 2,500 acres of pumpkins are put out each year, more than 60 percent of them are no-tilled, Groff said.

The result of planting into crop residue instead of onto plowed and worked ground is cleaner pumpkins and produce.

“Let’s face it, people would rather buy a clean pumpkin than one that’s got mud on it,” Groff said. “[Cartons] are tagged as ‘no-tilled’ at the produce auctions, and growers are getting a premium on them because of it.”

Of particular benefit to the Groffs have been cover crop cocktails, or mixtures of multiple species of cover crops. The more species seeded onto each acre, the more biodiversity there is and the better it is for the soil, Groff said.

“Cost is very important in cover crops, but you can do this for $20 or less per acre. There’s good payback, but you have to push your pencil to see what pays you back the best.”

Sure thing

One sure bet with no-till systems and cover crops is successful managers can make a deep cut in chemical use.

“We all agree we live in volatile market times, so we need to get the soil in condition to not rely on inputs so much. The soil can do more on its own if we invest in it,” he said.

Groff also acknowledged there’s a change in mindset required to move toward no-till and cover crops as farming tools.

“It costs money and time, but there are so many benefits. The increased interest in no-till and cover crops is worldwide, and it behooves us to learn about it,” Groff said.

“I encourage you to wean yourself off the plow, but don’t sell it. Park it out back as a monument to how things used to be.”

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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