North Carolina farmer shares no-till lessons at summer field day

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Zeb Winslow III speaks at the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Summer Field Day held in Butler County, Pennsylvania, July 24. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

Zeb Winslow III had his no-till “ah-ha” moment after a big rain storm came through a couple years ago.

He’s a farmer from Scotland Neck, North Carolina, who got into no-till farming about six years ago. Before that, he and his father had been doing strip-tillage for about 15 years.

“It wasn’t like we were coming out of a conventional tillage system,” Winslow said. “We were coming out of a strip tillage system, but it was still a struggle to convince [my father] that we could do it differently than the way it had always been done.”

Their strip-till rig disturbed maybe 4 or 6 inches of ground. Winslow thought that conservation practice was good enough. They didn’t see a reason to go the whole way into no-till.

A couple years ago, they got an inch of rain in one rain event. Winslow went out to check his cotton fields afterward. While he was still transitioning to no-till, he had strip-till and no-till cotton planted side by side.

He walked through the strip-till cotton first. Every step he took, water was squishing under his boots. Water was laying on top of the ground. As he continued to walk, he noticed his boots stopped squishing. He looked down and saw he had crossed over into the no-till cotton.

“In the place where we had 100% no-till, all of that water had gone into the ground. I had no mud. I had aggregation around the plants,” he said. “I went back to the strip-till cotton and they were sitting in absolute sloppy mud.”

Winslow was the featured speaker at the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance Summer Field Day held July 24 at a farm in Connoquenessing Township, in Butler County. Ryan Graham, a PA No-Till Alliance director, hosted the event at his father’s farm where they grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay. The Grahams got into no-till in the 1990s.

Cover crop lessons

One of the keys of no-till farming is keeping a living plant root in the ground. Winslow said he’s seen massive benefits from using a multi-species cover crop and planting into green cover crops, but it hasn’t all been rainbows and sunshine.

“I never heard a lot about failures in the first couple years I was going to stuff and listening to people talk about no-till,” he said. “We’re going to learn a lot more from our failures than we are from our successes.”

Cover crops will fight erosion and build soil health, but they can also be frustrating, bewildering and might make you question everything, Winslow said. They’ll retain moisture and suppress weeds, but require that you be adaptable.

Every year is different and what works for your neighbors might not work for you.

It’s not a rigid system. It helps to be flexible, he said.

For example, he said a few years ago, they had a wet spring and the cover crops got away from them.

“We had mature rye, mature triticale, dead clover. It was the second week of June before it got dry enough to plant, and we could not get a planter in the ground,” he said.

He consulted with some experts who told him to spray and kill the cover crop so it would dry up and then he’d be able to plant into it.

“Planting green is a good idea, but you don’t have to be bound to it,” he said. “If it’s better for your conditions and what you see, terminate it. Try again next year.”

Start small

The cost of converting to no-till is one reason some farmers give for not doing it. The cost of buying cover crops and changing over equipment.

Winslow said that not only have their inputs of herbicide and fertilizer decreased substantially since going to no-till, they’re also saving a significant amount on fuel over when they were tilling the ground.

He also advised farmers to treat cover crops like real crops. Have a plan for what you want to accomplish with your covers and choose your seeds accordingly. Get them in on time. Chase the harvester if you have to, he said.

While farmers should be picky about the seeds they choose, they don’t need to worry as much about equipment, at least not initially. If you don’t have a grain drill, try broadcasting it to see what happens. Winslow said they try to use what they have on the farm and fabricate things they need over making big investments initially. You can get into it slowly and see how things go.

“Any of this stuff, start small,” he said. “Try it on a few acres. Try it on one field.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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