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'No excuses' for old-style tillage

“I had a grower tell me one time that no-till takes all the fun out of farming.” said Bradley, a conservation tillage specialist with Monsanto and former superintendent of the Milan Experiment Station, home of the Milan No-Till Field Day.

Bradley doesn’t have an answer for farmers looking to just have fun tilling. But for the more serious grower, he stresses that no-till or conservation till is today’s most cost-effective approach to crop production. And he backs it up his faith in the system with his company’s money.

Today, there are about 300 million acres of cropland in the United States, including 150 million highly erodible acres. Of that, about 100 million acres are in conservation tillage.

About half of those conservation tillage acres are in pure no-till, the rest includes ridge-till, which Bradley defines as a transition from conventional-tillage to some type of conservation tillage and mulch-till, in which farmers, “aren’t really committed to reducing the number of trips, but they like to leave some residue out there.”

There are about 14 million acres of no-till corn in the United States, 25 million acres of no-till soybeans, almost nine million acres of no-till small grains, including wheat and 1.4 million acres of no-till cotton. No-till cotton represents about 12 percent of total U.S. cotton acreage. Another 21 percent is in conservation tillage.

Why isn’t there more no-till and con-till in the United States? Bradley says one barrier is tradition. Growers have developed a propensity for excessive tillage, he says.

Bradley traces the origins of this to “the early days when we had to incorporate our herbicides. All our early herbicide technology was petroleum-based, highly volatile and we had to work it in. Then, we thought fertilizer had to be incorporated.”

Whatever the origin, tillage remains traditional, a hard habit to break. But Bradley doesn’t mince words when he says that tillage, “is a power trip for people who like to see the big tractors, who still like to see the diesel blow. There’s nothing interesting or powerful about a no-till planter, but it can accomplish the same thing. You have to get into the mindset to change.”

Another reason farmers give for continuing to till is that no-till won’t work on certain soil types. “But we haven’t found a soil type yet that it doesn’t work on with a little adjustment to the planter,” Bradley said.

Other farmers say they just don’t have the equipment to make it work and this is where Monsanto is sharing some costs with the farmer, albeit in many cases, it will result in more use of Monsanto’s Roundup, a key to good weed control in many conservation tillage practices.

“Monsanto is now entering its third year of a no-till retrofit program where we share the cost with the farmer, 20 percent or up to $1,000 of the cost of retrofitting a planter for no-till,” Bradley said. A hooded sprayer program will pay up to $1,000 on certain hooded sprayers.

As to another barrier, fear of compaction, Bradley says, “We have data and other documentation that show the reverse is true. Go look at a field that’s never been tilled. The whole soil structure and soil tilth is better.”

What would encourage a farmer to change to no-till or conservation till? A 1999 survey conducted by Monsanto puts economics at the top, followed by having the right equipment and better yields. As expected, a significant percentage of farmers in all regions of the United States, replied that nothing could get them to change.

What are those farmers missing out on?

According to three years of on-farm data at Monsanto Centers of Excellence in Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina and Texas, farmers reduced their costs an average of $34 an acre with no-till cotton. Cooperating farmers, whose entire farms are dedicated to testing no-till technology, also realized 31 more pounds of lint per acre. This produced $55 more per acre more than conventional till cotton.

“Labor is reduced by 50 percent,” Bradley added. “Most farmers are workaholics anyway, so they can take the same equipment, the same labor and farm more acres.

“One farmer told me, ‘I always wanted to play golf. I now play golf every afternoon.’ Another said, ‘My dad never saw me play ballgames. My girls play softball, and I have not missed a softball game this summer.’”

More time for social activities may not be what every hard-working farmer is after, admits Bradley. “However, what it equates to is the farmer is able to do the right thing at the right time. He’s able to plant in the window he wants to hit. He doesn’t have to orchestrate all these trips across the field.”

More benefits of no-till include:

Fuel savings. “If you go to no-till or conservation-till system, you will cut your fuel costs in half. That’s a lot of money this day and time.”

Reduced machinery wear and tear and fewer breakdowns and downtime and fewer major repairs.

Higher moisture. “We’re looking at at least one less irrigation in no-till cotton. And the water that runs off the field is cleaner. Water quality management begins when that raindrop hits the surface. There’s either dirt there or it’s residue there.”

Carbon sequestration. “We hear more about it every day. It’s real. Somewhere down the road, I think it’s going to be a side benefit for a farmer. The farmer could get some tax credits, get paid my some power company to keep his organic matter sequestered in the soil.”

Less air pollution. “I’ll be glad when we quit burning wheat fields.”

Bradley urges farmers to try a third of their crop in no-till. “If they do a third of their crop, they won’t mess it up. They won’t try to prove me wrong.”

No-till also has a fit on land beset by wind erosion, like Texas, northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel, noted Bradley. “I know it sounds like I’m picking on some of these areas, but when are they going to learn? They lose their crop at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning when the wind starts blowing.”

The best benefit of no-till, however, is to make sure the land stays productive for future generations, says Bradley. “We’ve got to reverse this cycle of depleting our soils. I don’t think enough producers have taken on the concept that they are caretakers of the soil, that they should leave the land in far better shape than they found it.”

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