Field Notes: No-Till for the Long Haul

October 22, 2009 07:00 PM

by Ken Rulon

After 16 years of continuous no-till, we are convinced no-till is one of the keys to economic and environmental sustainability.

On the economic side, the key to long-term survival in agriculture is to be a low-cost producer. Our yields are 7% to 9% higher than the county average, dispelling the myth of reduced yields with no-till.

In 2009, our cost of production for corn should be roughly 54¢ per bushel less than with a conventional-tillage system—$3.96 per bushel, compared with $4.50.

On the environmental side, our soil is healthier. For years, we had little scientific proof. We could see better tilth and better drainage and enter the field sooner after a rain without causing compaction, but science was slow to quantify the benefits. Now, recent studies by the Conservation Tech-nology Information Center (CTIC) and others have settled the scientific debate in favor of no-till soil quality.

A study by the Natural Resources Conservation Service determined that one of our fields had 1.6 million earthworms per acre. An adjacent field in conventional tillage had only one worm per acre. Earthworm channels improve drainage and enable roots to grow deeper so they can reach moisture during a dry spell, helping to weatherproof crops. The waste excreted by worms improves soil structure. In the first field, organic matter is increasing, proving that no-till is sustainable.

No-till out yields conventional tillage on about 75% of our soil types—from the white, forest, clay-type soils to the well-drained dark black soils. On the other soil types—heavy, poorly drained soils—no-till doesn't yield as well as conventional tillage, but the difference isn't great enough to justify doing tillage. Instead, we invest our time and money in overcoming the weaknesses associated with no-till.

In areas less suited for no-till, we may do vertical tillage or apply gypsum to reduce the magnesium levels. We almost always add tile to improve the drainage. Good drainage is essential for no-till. Soil productivity is hugely impacted by getting air into the soil. Since water is heavier than air, you have to remove the water to make that happen.

We install tile in the off-season, using our own machine. Pattern tiling is ideal with spacing determined by soil type—100' on side hill clays and 50' in areas where water ponds.

Tiling pays. Tiling costs money, but the payoff is that we will never have to till again. The cost of fuel and equipment for tillage is going up every year. With no-till, we can farm more than 5,000 acres with only three 200-hp tractors.

In areas with heavy, poorly drained soil, we do some vertical tillage. We also strip-till in fields with no-till continuous corn. The strip-tilled continuous corn lags conventional tillage by approximately 7.5% in our fields (although it still is more profitable than doing conventional tillage). But the technology to eliminate that yield drag, including new hybrids, improved fertility techniques, RTK GPS implement guidance and equipment that will let us react prescriptively to disease outbreaks is only a few years away. Most importantly, we are researching cover crops that aid in breaking down the corn residue and breaking the disease cycle. Other keys include variety selection, stand establishment and fertility.

We look for hybrids with flex ears because we will have some plants missing from our no-till stand. We look for extremely strong roots because the roots will have to grow in a cooler and denser soil. The specific seed lot also must have a high cold germination score.

Stand establishment for corn requires having the necessary attachments on the planter, such as seed firmers and spiked closing wheels.

Our fertility program strives for balance in the soil. We attempt to balance base saturations of calcium, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium.

There are many sources of infor-mation that can help you get started no-tilling. We learned by visiting with experienced no-till farmers and from organizations such as CTIC.

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