No-till? It’s all in the management

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WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. – High market prices for your grain. High fertilizer costs. High costs of production. The 2008 crop season will move through, as one Extension observer puts it, “uncharted waters.”
Proponents of no-till or conservation tillage practices are still convinced it’s the way to go, and nearly 150 of them gathered at the annual Tri-State Conservation Tillage Conference Jan. 22 in West Middlesex, Pa., to get a dose of encouragement.
“2008 will probably be one of the most challenging years you’ll face,” said conference chairman Les Ober from the Geauga County Extension office.
“2008 will be about management.”
And the day’s speakers agreed, pinpointing ways producers can improve pest management or nutrient management, or soil fertility management.
Back to basics. To make no-till work for your farm in the long run, you have to understand the basics, said Dan Towery of Ag Conservation Solutions in Indiana.
It’s all about minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil covers and cover crops, and diverse crop rotations. It’s a carefully planned systems approach.
Too often, no-till management adoption depends on soils, climate or crops, Towery said. Simply put, some crops, like soybeans, are easier to no-till than others, and some soils are easier to no-till than others.
That’s why “rotational tillage” is the norm in the U.S. Producers will no-till soybeans, but make a few plowing passes before planting corn.
When that happens, a producer stays in an “initialization phase,” Towery said, and doesn’t get the full benefits of improved soil health from no-till.
But continuous no-till is do-able, he added, estimating that between 8 percent and 12 percent of U.S. cropland has been in continuous no-till for at least five years.
Yield drag. Towery said the switch back and forth between tilling and no-till in corn is often because of inconsistency. Many growers get good results, but may see a yield drop of 3 to 15 bushels per acre.
It comes back to management, he said.
“No-till corn requires paying attention to the details,” said Towery, who was with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for 25 years and is known as a national expert in no-till and soil quality.
You’ve got to watch tractor speeds while planting, seed depth and myriad other factors.
Towery also warned that the learning curve is huge and constant when working with conservation tillage. There’s no “instant gratification”, as he says, and there’s no cookbook that lists the step-by-step recipe for your farm. Each field, each farm and each farmer is different.
Patience, patience. There is no doubt in Towery’s mind that continuous no-till can improve soil quality, which means higher yields, but it’s not a magic bullet.
“It takes time,” Towery said. “The first couple years of no-till could be a challenge.”
What works one year may not be what you need to do the next year, because the soil structure and the soil microbial activity are changing. Nutrient needs change; water availability changes. It could take up to 12 years for a field to reach its potential.
Less runoff. Towery talks repeatedly about “soil aggregation,” which refers to a soil’s structure, including the pore space for air and water. Tillage can ruin soil aggregates but, conversely, no-till can promote aggregation through increased organic matter. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the benefits of no-till on soil aggregation and soil structure are real.
One of the true benefits of improved soil aggregation is less runoff, Towery said.
“We accept runoff, but we don’t have to,” he said about crop production. Continuous no-till “can almost, almost eliminate runoff.”
Cornell measurement. Bob Schindelbeck, a soil scientist at Cornell University, showed conference participants a different method of soil testing that focuses on soil health, not just its chemical properties.
Cornell’s soil health test lists a soil’s rating on such qualities as aggregate stability, available water capacity, surface hardness, organic matter, active carbon, root health rating, as well as the typical chemical properties, like phosphorus, pH, or potassium.
If your soil scores in the low range of a trait, there are specific management options you could consider to improve that score, and ultimately improve soil health.
“It’s just information, but it’s something to go forward with, something to target your management practices,” Schindelbeck said.
Producer panel. In addition to Towery and Schindelbeck, conference speakers included Ohio State entomologist Ron Hammond and certified professional agronomist Steve Parrish.
A panel of six producers shared tips from their onfarm experience. Panel members included Pennsylvania farmers Chris Pilgram, Rob Yost and Mike Ohler; New York farmers Craig Phelps and Donn Branton; and Ohio’s Myron Wehr.
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)

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