No-Till Continues to Grow
Sometimes it is hard to imagine that no-till started with 7/10 of an acre in Kentucky in 1962. Like a boulder rolling down hill, it slowly picked up momentum and respect. Now finishing its 50th year, it is practiced on more than 35 percent of the acres devoted to the eight major crops in the U.S., and the momentum continues to build.
"By 1994, there were an estimated 39 million acres in no-till," said Chad Watts, project director, Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC). "By 2004, no-till had grown to 62 million acres. In 2009, the Economic Research Service estimated no-till was practiced on 88 million acres."
Photo courtesy Frank LessiterHarry Young stands in front of a marker commemorating his beginning endeavors into no-till farming. From the beginning, it is agricultural retailers who supported and championed the cause, recalled Frank Lessiter, chairman, Lessiter Publications, and long time editor of No-Till Farmer. "They got on board early," he said. "Willard Chemical, Frederick, Md., was one of the leaders. They got into no-till in the late 1960s."
Lessiter noted the difference between agricultural chemical companies and equipment companies who saw no-till as a threat to their tillage business. The exception was Allis-Chalmers, who put together the first planter designed for no-till. Eventually other companies got on board as well, promoting no-till planters and drills rather than lose that business to another brand.
Lessiter also got on board early, on staff with No-Till Farmer when it started in 1972. For the past 40 years, it has promoted no-till, holding the annual National No-Tillage Conference and continually spreading the gospel of no-till.
"There were 3.3 million acres in no-till when we started the publication," recalled Lessiter. "What made it work was when we got Roundup for use as a burndown. Weed control was the big problem. Before that, the only burndown we had was paraquat, which didn't translocate and would kill anything it touched."
Photo courtesy Frank LessiterA Buffalo planter was an early way of ridge tilling and no-tilling. Another problem early adopters of no-till faced was peer pressure. No-till farming was called farming ugly. "A lot of veteran no-tillers will tell you they quit going to the coffee shop in those days because they didn't want to be hassled," said Lessiter, who helped turn the look of no-till into a point of pride. "No-tillers would send in pictures to a FARM UGLY contest that we held."
Like others associated with no-till, Lessiter gave the credit for growth to those early adopters and the farmers who followed in their footsteps. "We gave them the ingredients, but the farmer wrote his own recipe," he said. "The thing with no-till is you can have two guys across the road from each other, each doing no-till his way, maybe one with coulters and one without. They both make it work, but neither could be successful the other way."
Lessiter noted that when Roundup Ready crops hit the market, no-till took off again. With precision ag and other tools available today and the economic benefits firmly understood, he doesn't see the trend slowing down. "When you are talking 10,000 to 20,000 acre operations, those guys don't want to make multiple trips," said Lessiter. "With a single pass, you don't want overlaps or skips of chemicals, seed or fertilizer. With precision technologies, you have controlled traffic. You can strip till in the fall, build berms and apply fertilizer and come right back to the berm in the spring."
Long-term no-till produces soil with strong aggregation and increased structure. The proliferation of fungi in the soil produces glomalin, which acts as a binder, creating soil structure. Some things don't change, like attitudes toward no-till, pointed out Lessiter. "Many machinery companies make one planter that fits any system, simply modifying it for no-till. Most don't make a planter specifically for no-till," he said. "Chemical companies and ag retailers continue to be important supporters of no-till. Syngenta has been a sponsor of our No-Tillage Conference for all 21 years and Bayer CropScience has been a sponsor for 14 years."
Lessiter is quick to recognize the role ag retailers have played, but points to more they could be doing, including sponsoring field days and plot tours. CTIC sees ag retailers as playing a pivotal role in assisting farmers who haven't made the transition to no-till.
"Ag retailers are critical in advancing the adoption of no-till systems," said Watts. "There are some excellent examples of retailers helping their customers adopt successful conservation tillage systems. However, we need more doing it. Ag retailers certainly have the expertise in soil health and biology to encourage people leaning toward no-till. I think they have more influence than they might imagine."
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Karen Scanlon, executive director, CTIC, cited a recent program funded by the USDA designed to encourage and support farmers making the transition to no-till. She said it identified important aspects of successful transitions that could be put into practice by retailers.
The program paired farmers with crop consultants. The one-on-one effort was designed to speed the transition, in part, through communications. The pairing ensured the producer had someone to answer their questions, assist in setting up and adjusting planters and drills and simply being supportive.
"The program demonstrated the importance of not just technical support, but social support, when a farmer is making a substantial change to practices," said Scanlon. "The social part of it includes having other farmers to talk to. That's something retailers can help with, creating an event or forum where producers can talk together. Even if the retailer isn't experienced with no-till, they can provide a service to their customers by bringing in experienced no-tillers. CTIC can assist in organizing informational meetings."*
"What we have found is that farmers really want to learn from other farmers who have tried and failed or tried and succeeded," said Watts. "One of the big things you hear about the National No-Tillage Conference is that farmers feel they learn a great deal between sessions, just talking to other farmers."
Another even more natural role of retailers is also vital to successful no-till transitions, noted Scanlon. "Having the herbicides and fertilizer products no-tillers need is important, as is having the information on how to build a productive system of conservation practices," she said. "There are a lot of variables that go into successful no-till. Having a trusted advisor who can help the farmer understand those variables is invaluable."
Informing growers on available tools is one reason Syngenta and other suppliers sponsor the National No-Tillage Conference. The tools these companies provide have made a big difference in the potential success available with no-till, noted Craig Abell, crop specialist, Syngenta.
"Hybrids with early vigor for early planting and good germination in cooler soils and robust seed care packages like our Avicta Complete Corn and CruiserMaxx Corn brands that protect seedlings from early season insects, disease and nematodes have all made a difference," said Abell. "Of course weed management is critical to no-till, and the evolution of weed species has emphasized the importance of a residual as a foundation and alternative modes of action to take the selection process off of glyphosate."
Abell pointed to the importance of retailers keeping their customers informed about both the benefits of no-till and the tools that can take the edge off of transitioning to it. "There is an opportunity there for educational meetings on how best to use these tools," he said. "With weeds like Palmer amaranth and tall waterhemp developing glyphosate tolerance, the need for overlapping residual and timely application needs to be emphasized. Those four-inch tall weeds need to be targeted. Without good weed control, you don't have no-till."