Ask Mike Starkey about what it takes to make no-till successful, and you might be surprised at his answer. Starkey of Brownsburg, Ind., has no-tilled both corn and soybeans for over 20 years, and has also used cover crops for 15 years. He typically plants both corn and soybeans green into cover crops each spring.
“If you’re asking me what you need to do to make no-till work, improving drainage in wet fields is at the top of the list,” Starkey says. “You must get tile installed and get drainage right first.
“Then you can go on to other things, including learning from your peers, starting out small before switching your whole farm to no-till and being open to change. But it all starts with getting drainage right before you do anything else.”
Starkey notes that most of the land that he farms is naturally somewhat poorly, or poorly drained. Clay tile lines were installed to drain the wettest spots decades ago.
“When my dad farmed conventionally in the 1970s and 1980s, many of those clay tile lines still functioned,” Starkey says. “But they’re just worn out today. For the most part, they no longer function.”
That’s why he makes installing pattern tile a priority. Since it’s expensive, you can only tile so many acres each year. With wheat in his crop rotation, he usually has fields where the tiling contractor can work after wheat is harvested and straw is baled. Wheat stubble fields also give him a place to seed 14-way cover crop mixes. Many species in those mixes must be planted before corn and soybeans are harvested to get enough growth before winter.
Tile improves wet fields
A few counties to the west, Carter Morgan of Cayuga is also a firm believer in the benefit of installing pattern tile in fields with soil drainage issues, especially if you’re in conservation tillage. He farms with his father, Brian, brother Brent and uncle Darrell. Carter also assists the Vermillion County Soil and Water Conservation District in encouraging and working with other farmers who want to try no-till and cover crops. The Morgans primarily no-till, often planting green into cover crops.
“We have our own tile plow, and we’ve definitely seen the benefits of tiling on many of our fields,” Morgan explains. “Wet spots show up as lower yielding in wet years on yield maps. If you can tile those fields, it’s not long before you’re seeing better yields on yield maps.”
As an example, Morgan points to a field that they tiled about four years ago. It has similar soils to a nearby field that isn’t yet pattern-tiled. “The yield maps indicated better than a 30-bushel-per-acre advantage for the tiled field the last time they were in corn and about the same advantage in wheat,” he says.
They typically install 4-inch laterals on their soils, usually on 50-inch centers. Even though some of their fields have a gentle slope, they still need tile drainage, Morgan says.