To maintain eligibility for most USDA farm program benefits, Lance Hansen and his son Nick are required to no-till their mostly highly erodible cropland near Adair, Iowa. "I don't mind having to no-till because it's easy to see the implications of doing tillage [in the form of increased soil erosion],” Lance says.
Lance's father, Lyle (who is now retired but still helps on the farm), began to no-till fields in the 1970s. For a while, the Hansens also performed some in-line ripping—something that is no longer allowed by their USDA highly erodible land conservation plan.
"I thought ripping controlled erosion, if you did it on the contour,” Lance says. "And it produced some of our very best yields. But those happened to be years with very good weather, when there were many good yields all around the area, so we can't say for sure that the good yields resulted from ripping.
"Even if we give up a little yield, with no-till it probably balances out, with $3.50-per-gallon diesel fuel and the savings that result from owning less equipment,” Lance continues. "And no-till sure simplifies things—you no longer have to worry about keeping the field cultivator ahead of the planter.”
As cash-grain farmers, continuous no-till is easier to accomplish for the Hansens than it is for some of their neighbors who are livestock producers. "Some of them are finding it difficult to apply manure without ever doing any tillage,” Lance notes.
No-Till Grows in Indiana
Data from a statewide survey shows Indiana's no-till corn planting acreage increased from 19% in 2004 to 27% in 2007. No-till soybean planting rose from 61% to 69% during the same period. That much more no-tillage cuts soil erosion losses by more than 1 million tons, according to the Indiana Department of Agriculture (IDA).
In the survey, which Indiana has conducted since 1990, volunteers visit specific fields and document what type of tillage was used. Sponsors include soil and water conservation districts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service and IDA Division of Soil Conservation.
It will require another survey, however, to determine whether 2008's late, wet planting season slowed the pace of no-till growth in Indiana. "The frustration factor of waiting for fields to dry out and the need to replant some fields probably drove a few farmers back to tillage,” predicts Barry Fisher, NRCS conservation agronomist for Indiana. "But I think any setback in no-till adoption will be minor and temporary.
"Most long-term veteran no-tillers are not willing to sacrifice the gains they have made in soil quality for a one-year fix using tillage,” Fisher says. "Despite weather as bad as you could ever have for no-till, the long-term no-till fields that I've seen look as good as any.”
Count Fisher is among those veteran no-till farmers. "I stayed with no-till,” he says, "even though planting was very late. Besides, I don't have any equipment to till with, even if I wanted to.”
Satellites Track Conservation Tillage Trends
On-the-ground surveys (see adjacent item) are one way to track conservation tillage. In the future, remote sensing could be another.
Scientists at the USDA–Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Southeast Watershed Research Unit, in Tifton, Ga., recently used Landsat TM 5 satellite imagery to map crop residue cover over a 230,000-acre area in the Little River Experimental Watershed. They confirmed the results by physically checking fields.
There are many uses for remotely sensed tillage data besides tracking tillage trends, explains USDA–ARS soil scientist Dana Sullivan, who led the mapping project. It can also be used to determine how the location of conservation tillage in a watershed affects water quality. That would enable USDA and other agencies to target conservation tillage incentive programs. "We can use the data to estimate how conservation tillage placement affects water savings in irrigated agriculture,” she says.
A satellite-based tillage mapping system covering the U.S. is still some time into the future. For Sullivan's team, the next step is to expand the mapping study to a four-county area.