Don Biehle was superintendent of the Southeast Purdue Agricultural Center near Butlerville, Ind., for 41 years. He retired two years ago and keeps as busy as ever. The only difference is now he does volunteer work to help his community. He’s especially proud of his efforts to improve the local volunteer fire department.
Recently, Biehle reflected on what he learned about no-till during his 41 years as manager of hundreds of acres of land in southeastern Indiana. When he took the position to begin SEPAC, most thought no-till wouldn’t work on the gray flats or even the rolling soils on the farm. Yet soil erosion was rampant.
What makes no-till work
Here are reflections Biehle offers about no-till from his vantage point today:
Stop soil erosion. The land making up the SEPAC farm was moldboard-plowed and conventionally tilled, and soil erosion was out of control, Biehle recalls. A crusty, veteran soil conservation professional called out Purdue University for allowing such erosion to occur.
“I saw it as a challenge, and I knew we had to get erosion under control,” Biehle says. “That’s what really got me looking at no-till in the first place. We began including wheat on bulk acres to have something growing over the winter on the most erosive fields.”
Make it part of your mindset. “If no-till is going to work, you have to change your mindset,” Biehle says. “You must decide that’s what you’re going to do and stick with it. A commitment to stick with it is probably one of the most important things you can do.”
Change happens over time. Don’t expect miracles right away. Earthworm populations will increase once you convert to no-till, Biehle says. Once you commit to no-till, he believes it’s important to no-till both corn and soybeans, not just no-till soybeans one year and then conventionally till corn the next. That’s an improvement, but it’s not a true commitment to no-till, he says.
Cover crops are a process. “We went through phases with cover crops,” Biehle recalls. For a long time, he relied on wheat on the most erosive fields as a winter cover crop. Everything he tried with cover crops didn’t always pan out, but he kept trying and learning. He also believes it’s still possible to succeed at no-till without using cover crops every year in every field.
If you need to till, then till. There may be occasions after years of continuous no-till where you feel a year of disking or field cultivating would help. Some strongly advise against this, but Biehle never saw ill effects from it.
“We’re not talking about moldboard plowing,” he says. “But if you need to do light tillage once, do it and then go back to no-till the next year. We didn’t see losses in earthworm populations or other negative effects from doing so.”
Avoid “work it to dry it out” syndrome. Patience is a virtue for the no-tiller, especially in the spring on soils that tend to be wet anyway. “We used to hear lots of talk about ‘working it once to dry it out and then plant,’” Biehle explains. “All you really do is create soil compaction. I don’t hear that much anymore. I think most people realize they’re better off to wait until the soil is right to plant.”