Alternative tilling methods offer new planting ideas

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To till or not to till? Mini-Cassia farmers are answering that question as more lean toward alternative methods to grow crops.

Always looking for a way to boost crop yields and reduce water usage, many farmers are shaking up the established method of preparing fields and planting seeds. Greater yields, less water use and richer soil are some primary benefits they see from new methods.

With “no-till” planting, said Oakley farmer Nick Robinson, a farmer can plant a crop over a previous year’s crop without plowing up the ground and overturning it, as is traditional.

Robinson has used the no-till method to plant wheat and now is trying it with corn.

“This year we just used our traditional corn planter and went right in and drilled with it, put the pressure down a little harder, and put it right in the ground,” said Robinson. “No-till is just going straight through a stubble field and planting right in the stubble.”

Robinson said his family’s farming operation shifted away from no-till methods in grain because they started using more manure to fertilize the fields. Plow work is necessary to work the manure into the ground so it benefits from the fertilizer nutrients.

The no-till approach does more than save time. A previous crop’s ground cover helps the new crop flourish by leaving more nutrients in the soil.

In areas where dry farming is common, minimal tillage also is useful because it needs less water, said John Firth, of the Minidoka County Soil and Water Conservation District.

No-till farming can improve water infiltration into the soil and lessen erosion, Firth said.

No-till farming is increasing about 1.5 percent a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports. In 2009, 35.5 percent of U.S. cropland used some form of no-till techniques, the USDA found.

In the Mini-Cassia area, farmers have split the difference between both methods. By using a more modest “strip-tilling,” farmers can essentially get the best of both worlds.

Strip-tilling combines the soil drying and warming advantages found in traditional ground-working with the soil protection benefits of no-till practices. In this method, only the soil that contains the seed row is disturbed during planting. The rest of the soil is left with its existing cover of last year’s crop. The existing cover serves the same purpose as it does in no-till methods: boosting soil water infiltration and nutrient retention.

No-till and strip-till methods come with their own set of challenges, however. Plowing helps to significantly eliminate weeds and is one of the biggest benefits of traditional tillage techniques.

For a farmer to adopt a no-till or strip-till method requires heavier reliance on herbicides to control weeds.

But Kerry Bowen, a Mini-Cassia farmer, said the benefits outweigh the challenges.

“For guys working in the sand, it’s a heaven-send,” said Bowen. “You can go in and plant and not lose your topsoil.”

Crops have a tough time in some soil because the dirt turns to clay as soon as it gets wet, he said. Strip-tilling solves that problem.

Bowen cut his first crop of hay earlier this summer and then strip-tilled the field to plant beans.

“That worked extremely well,” he said. “It’s keeping the moisture in the ground, and you can still see the hay between the rows of beans.”

The answer to which method works best is seen in the crop yield — and that depends on the crop, Robinson said.

“It varies from crop to crop,” he said. “With wheat, both no-till and tilling ground yielded about the same. With corn, it’s different. You can see a difference in the crop where we’ve tilled and where we haven’t. The corn in the worked ground is taller.”

Bowen has spent seven years using the strip-till method, and it’s taken time to figure out how to make it work effectively, he said.

“I’m getting there with it. I like it because where you don’t till actually retains a lot of moisture,” he said. “But you’ve got to spend some time and figure out how everything works.”

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