Reduced tilling a growing trend in county

A major change in farming practices is causing shifts in a great variety of things, from the quality of water you drink to the size of a tractor in the field.

The change goes by several names, depending on how much plant material is left on top of the soil after a crop is raised. The most familiar terms are such “conservation tillage,” “minimum tillage” and “no-till.”

More crop residue is being left in the field, crops are being directly planted in the residue, and practices such as plowing and disking are being eliminated.

No-till, not using any tillage at all, may become a front-line defense in the effort to slow global warming, say several agriculture experts.

Gary Schuler, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Marion, said these practices now account for 44 percent of all crop land planted in Marion County. Only 10 years ago, such practices were just being introduced.

Schuler said a statistically valid survey done by his department last year showed 67,000 acres-including some double-cropped land-in no-till. That’s 20 percent of Marion County’s crop land.

He said the survey showed 82,000 acres-24 percent of the crop land-in minimum tillage, which is land with at least 30 percent residue on top.

Land in reduced tillage-with less than 30 percent residue on top-accounted for 28 percent of the acres, he said.

The remaining 94,000 acres-also 28 percent of the land-was in conventional tillage.

Schuler said USDA statistics for all counties nationwide show the trend to no-till is universal. It is the only crop-farming method that actively increases the organic matter content of the soil instead of allowing water runoff to carry it away or burning it up faster by turning it under, he said.

The biggest component of organic matter is carbon, which, in the gas carbon dioxide, is regarded as a major cause of global warming.

Organic matter in top-soil “is a major storehouse for carbon,” Schuler said, and therefore there is wide discussion at USDA about giving “carbon credits” that may include incentive payments to farmers who practice no-till.

Rod Peters, who began farming his 1,375 acres between Goessel and Hillsboro with the no-till method in 1994, can verify the organic matter build-up over the last six seasons with his soil tests.

He said organic matter levels ranged from 0.9 to 1.2 percent when he started the practice. They now range from 2.2 to 3.0 percent.

Peters said he can visually verify that his soil is much more alive.

“The earthworm activity is so much higher,” he said. “I couldn’t hardly find earthworms in the top four inches any more when we worked it all the time.

“All of the microbial action is high,” he added. “There’s a lot of microbial action decomposing material on top of the ground when the weather warms up. There’s more good mulchy humus-not quite at the level you see when you walk into where the leaves and needles are decomposing in a shelter belt, but good.

These factors help define what healthy soil is, Peters said.

“With no-till, you have to learn to think differently. You’re feeding the soil to feed the plant. Narrower rows create more residue. The soil likes residue. It breaks up the rain drops.”

Steve Tonn, Marion County agricultural extension agent, said the reduced-tillage practices increase in the county as you travel south and west from Hillsboro.

Schuler suggested the practices may catch on faster with farmers who have better-drained land, where higher moisture retention is more desirable.

Tonn said reduced tillage normally requires a farmer to make more use of rotations to reduce weed infestations.

Herbicide use is increased too, but environmental concerns are offset because herbicide is more completely retained where it is used.

Tonn said water runoff that may carry soil particles with herbicide away is greatly reduced. The soil isn’t loosened to be carried away, and more water percolates into the top layer to be retained.

Tonn and Peters said a “rain machine” used at extension demonstrations on differently worked ground is usually impressive proof to farmers.

A “No-till Day” is being planned for July, probably in the Tampa area. It will include discussion, questions and answers with farmers experienced in no-till practices.

Tonn said one of the more commonly used herbicides, Roundup, is a contact killer that becomes deactivated when it hits the earth. Many no-till farmers are using soybeans genetically engineered for Roundup resistance.

Peters said no-till rotations use broad-leaf crops such as soybeans, sunflowers or cotton if there is a grass problem to get rid of. If broad-leaf weeds are the problem, then grass-descended crops such as wheat, corn or grain sorghum are used with a broad-leaf killing herbicide.

Tonn said no-till is changing farm equipment needs, too. Farmers are moving toward smaller-horsepower tractors to pull smaller equipment.

“Instead of a 30-foot drill, only a 15-foot drill may be required,” Tonn said. “What’s needed in drills to plant in residue is a machine designed to put more downward pressure to put the seed through the trash. Seed placement is important. In some makes a coulter may be added to remove trash from the path.

“Fuel economy is improved with no-till because the equipment isn’t as big, and you don’t need as many trips over the field,” he added.

Dale Wealand, salesman for Marion Equipment, Inc., verified that the most popular tractors sold have declined by 50 to 60 horsepower.

“Before no-till they were wanting the 150 horsepower or more,” Wealand said. “Now we sell a lot of 7410s, 100-horsepower tractors. We’ve been selling more no-till drills and planters for at least three or four years.”

Peters said retiring partners changed his operation to no-till for two reasons: reduced machinery and reduced labor needs. He switched from a 175-horsepower tractor to a 130-horsepower tractor and traded in now unneeded machinery for a no-till drill and planter.

His fuel needs were reduced with reduced horsepower. He also found that instead of running wide-open, he could run a tractor under 1,600 rpm, therefore extending its useable life.

Best of all, Peters’ crop yields have increased.

“I used to have a different philosophy,” he said. “I always planned for the drought. My expectations were for the county average with some bad years thrown in. Now I expect twice as much.

“I’m disappointed if I’m not getting at least 50 bushels per acre wheat, 80-bushel milo, 100-bushel corn and 30-bushel soybeans,” Peters added. “Before, I might not have ever grown corn and soybeans because I couldn’t count on the moisture. Last year’s roots that decomposed and the earthworms have opened channels for water through the soil.

“I don’t need a rear-assist combine and the ground’s firmer sooner after a rain,” Peters said. “Ask yourself if you’d rather have to drive through a pasture after a rain or on ground you just worked up.

“If the moisture is there and the fertilizer is there, there’s no reason my ground can’t yield with any crop. You do still have to have rains at the right times. We used to get planted at later dates too because of the tillage.

“Now instead of watching for rain in the weather report, I am usually watching for wind speeds for when to apply herbicides. If it’s a still day, I’m out there spraying. If it’s a windy day, I’m putting in seed.

“Timing is different using four different crops instead of a thousand acres of wheat, with four different planting times and four harvests. I can get along with one combine and little need for hired men.

“I get to have family time in late July and early August when it used to be I was always trying to catch up. Now there’s no ground to work, and the crops are in so they’re out there just growing. I’m not out there trying to finish a field at 2 a.m. You can’t hardly see where you’ve been in the dark in a no-till field anyway.

Peters has encountered some challenges with no-till.

“Fertilizer and the cost of fertilizer are still of high concern to me,” he said. “I’ll be testing for nitrogen to see what’s left after last year’s drought. If there’s none left, I’ll be planting soybeans (a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil), and if there’s a big carry over, I might want to plant sunflowers or cotton.

“Right now, I’m watching my cows graze corn stalks. You can utilize some of the residue as a by-product, feed for the cows. It’s keeping them out of the mud, too.”

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