If you want to call Barry Fisher, Indiana state agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, you'd better have his cell phone number. Never fond of desks, Fisher spends much of his time working with no-till farmers, helping them put out field studies, or testing no-till concepts on his own 30 acres of cropland. "I have to try things myself if I'm going to talk about them,” he says.
Fisher's 30-year fascination with no-till has established him as one of the method's strongest advocates. "If you manage no-till intensively, it will pay better than conventional tillage every time, especially with today's high input costs,” he says. "Even in 2008, with the worst weather you could ever have for no-till plantings, long-term no-till fields yielded as well as any.”
Here are a few of Fisher's top tips to achieve no-till success:
¡Equip your planter with row cleaners. "The purpose of row cleaners is to prepare a uniform, consistent soil surface,” Fisher says. "That minimizes bouncing by the planting units. Floating row cleaners are best. Row cleaners should move only residue, not soil; if you move soil, you are moving away the warmest, driest soil, which is right at the surface in a no-till system.”
¡Starter fertilizer is essential. "Twenty-five pounds of nitrogen per acre is the minimum rate, and 35 lb. or 40 lb. is better,” Fisher says.
"Starter must be applied deeper than the seed, at a uniform rate and depth—2" beside and below the seed is a good standard placement. If you apply a higher amount of nitrogen in your starter, move 3" or 4" away from the row to keep the starter out of the row on turns. If you're applying pop-up fertilizer in the row, consider moving the rest of your starter a little more than 2" away.”
¡Walking gauge wheels are well worth the cost, which probably will be $30 per row. "Tandem gauge wheels eliminate the hard bounce that you get with traditional gauge wheels mounted on a T-bar,” Fisher says.
¡Gauge-wheel tires with reduced inner diameter, such as those on Case IH planters, minimize sidewall compaction by directing down pressure away from the seed slot. "They're a common denominator among successful no-till farmers,” Fisher says.
¡Get your planter components into tip-top shape. "Have your planter units tested on a meter, using your typical seed size,” Fisher advises. "Chains should be replaced frequently. Check for sticky links. Jerking or sloppiness in the chains causes skips and doubles, which reduce yield.”
¡Put new hoses on the squeeze pumps every year to ensure uniform fertilizer application. "Hoses lose their elasticity because of the caustic nature of the fertilizer,” Fisher says.
¡With no-till, speed kills. "Never plant faster than 5 mph,” Fisher says. "The firmer seedbed with no-till increases planter bounce. If you can't afford to slow down, buy a bigger planter. The increased yield from more consistent seed placement and population will help you pay for it.”
¡Stick with it. "You can't realize the benefits to soil quality if you jump in and out,” Fisher says. "It takes about five years to reap those benefits. Once you see them, you won't want to go back to tillage.”
¡Keep learning. "No-till is a system, so there's a lot of information to master,” Fisher says. "Success requires intensive management.” He has posted no-till survey data, publications, event dates, training and technical information, links to discussion groups and more at www.agry.purdue.edu/cti.
You can e-mail Darrell Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.