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No-till switch made for economic reasons

Fields with cover crops appear to have weathered June wind storms better than fields that had no cover
<p> Fields with cover crops appear to have weathered June wind storms better than fields that had no cover.</p>
&ldquo;I started no-till not to save the world but to save me.&rdquo; Residue is the heart of no-till production. Residue also protects the soil.

When Venita, Oklahoma. farmer Jay Franklin switched to no-till farming back in the 1980s, he had no grandiose visions of making significant contributions to soil and water conservation.

“I was broke,” Franklin said as a featured speaker at the recent No-till Oklahoma Conference in Norman. “I started no-till not to save the world but to save me. I’m beginning my 28thconsecutive year in no-till farming. That’s a fact. The rest of what I say is just opinion.”

No-till, one of his opinions implies, is reacting to the environment. “Management is reacting to a set of circumstances,” he said. That’s how he got started in no-till in the first place, reacting to circumstances that no longer worked economically on his farm.

“With no-till, we often first look for something we can hang onto (from the previous system).” For Franklin, that may have been a no-till cultivator, which he thinks is a bit of an oxymoron. “It was a crutch,” he said. “I eliminated it.”

Residue is key

Residue is the heart of no-till production. “Temperature moderation is one advantage,” Franklin said. “Soil is cooler in the summer and a little warmer in the fall to aid in establishing a wheat crop.”

Residue also protects the soil. “The impact of a raindrop on bare soil can be significant,” he said. “It seals the soil. Residue lessens that impact and absorbs the moisture. Residue also improves moisture conservation. We try to convert one drop of rain into a kernel of grain.”

Franklin prefers “vertical” residue. “Standing residue simplifies planting,” he said,” and serves as a windbreak. It’s easier to get herbicide through as well. Also, even distribution of residue improves planting and herbicide application.”

No-till production makes each crop inter-dependent on other crops in rotation, he said.

“We want a lot of mulch, standing up and just enough on the ground to cover the soil surface. We have a little trouble in Northeast Oklahoma sustaining mulch with our typical moisture and humidity. We can manage around too much residue—without additional attachments.”

Franklin keeps the process as simple as possible. K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) is his mantra. “I run a conventional planter with just one add-on that acts as a shock absorber. I don’t see the usefulness of a lot of attachments. Adding more implements means more down pressure, especially on the vulnerable area over the emerging crop.”

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Large pieces of residue, he says, are easier to deal with than smaller ones. “It’s easier to cut the longer ones and we see less ‘hair-pining.’”

He doesn’t like vertical tillage. “With vertical tillage we can’t help but put a little hardpan in the soil.”

Herbicide applications offer challenges. “We have to start thinking about pre-emergence herbicides,” he said, as a response to herbicide-resistant weed populations. “But pre-emergence materials do not fit well with no-till and residue. We will keep looking for postemergence options.”

He has no “standing rule,” for herbicide application timing in relation to planting date.

He does favor a traditional spray nozzle for herbicide application to keep volume stable.

He’s also thinking more about cover crops, planted just to provide winter cover and residue to plant into. “We are evaluating the best use of our resources, especially water for cover to increase residue. I’m not sure of the best use of the resource (produce a cover crop or save for the main crop).”

Some new thinking may open up the possibility of pulling additional value out of that cover. “Adding livestock to the equation, for example, may add economical value to the cover and could make more economical sense.”

Timing is always a factor with no-till but is an elusive element. “We look at timeliness versus the optimum condition,” Franklin said. “We can look for the perfect system but what may be perfect for what we anticipate may not be perfect for what we get. It’s always important to define a problem before we apply a solution.”

Reducing his equipment inventory has been an important economic factor in Franklin’s switch to no-till production. “Depreciation is real,” he said. “We all love machinery, but we forget that if we add something like a vertical tillage unit, we have to add more tractors, more attachments and more expense.”

That defeats the K.I.S.S. principle. “I use one down-pressure spring on a conventional planter,” Franklin said. That’s as complicated as he wants to get in a system that’s designed to do more with less and take advantage of a few natural elements to conserve soil, capture moisture and add organic matter to the soil.

And, to Franklin’s way of thinking, it’s just a better economical choice.

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