Tips for No-Till Success

March 23, 2009 07:00 PM

Darrell Smith, Farm Journal Conservation & Machinery Editor
Want to find Barry Fisher? Better have his cell number. The Indiana State Agronomist for Natural Resources Conservation Service had never been fond of desks.
Instead, Fisher spends much of his time working with successful no-till farmers, helping them conduct 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 strongest advocates of the practice. "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.”
Farm Journal was able to track Fisher down for a few minutes. Here's the tips he offers to make 2009 no-till successful:
1. Equip your planter with row cleaners. "The purpose of row cleaners is to prepare a uniform, consistent soil surface,” says Fisher. "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.”
2. Starter fertilizer is essential. "Twenty-five lb. of nitrogen per acre is the minimum rate, and 35 or 40 lb. is better,” says Fisher. "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 popup fertilizer in the row, consider moving the rest of your starter a little more than 2” away.”
3. Walking gauge wheels are well worth the cost, which probably will be around $30 per row. "Tandem gauge wheels eliminate the hard bounce that you get with traditional gauge wheels mounted on a T-bar,” says Fisher.
4. 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,” says Fisher.
5. Get planter into tiptop shape. "Have your planter units tested on a meter, using your typical seed size,” he 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,” says Fisher.
6. With no-till, speed kills. "Never plant faster than 5 mph,” says Fisher. "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.”
7. Stick with it. "You can't realize the benefits to soil quality if you jump in and out,” says Fisher. "It takes about five years to reap those benefits. Once you see them, you won't want to go back to tillage.”
8. Keep learning. "No-till is a system, so there's a lot of information to master,” says Fisher. "Success requires intensive management.”
For More Information
Fisher has posted no-till publications, links to no-till discussion groups and more at

You can email Darrell Smith at

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