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No-till pioneer's faith making a difference

When Tom McCutcheon began working on no-till cropping systems in the late 1960s, it took a giant leap of faith. Few farmers thought you could grow crops in unplowed ground, much less control weeds without frequent cultivation.

But McCutcheon became convinced that no-till could help farmers in west Tennessee reduce the staggering soil losses that plagued the region. So he kept experimenting with no-till even though critics called it “trash farming” or farming ugly.

“Tom felt that until some way was found to control erosion, west Tennessee farmers would never be as productive as those in other states,” said John Bradley, who succeeded McCutcheon as director of the Milan Experiment Station and became a widely recognized expert in no-till cotton.

The initial research produced mixed results. No-till soybean yields were lower than the tilled. No one had invented a no-till planter, and herbicides back then left much to be desired as the primary source of weed control.

But McCutcheon wouldn't give up. As the soils at the Milan Station improved with no-till and he learned how to adapt planters to get a better stand, McCutcheon produced higher soybean and corn yields. He had also begun working on no-till cotton when he died in 1982.

Bradley, weed scientist Bob Hayes, and other University of Tennessee researchers continued McCutcheon's work, particularly on no-till cotton. Bradley also made the Milan No-Till Field Day, which McCutcheon started in 1981, one of the premier farm shows in the South.

Others researchers began taking a closer look at no-till and reduced till, including LSU's Bob Hutchinson and Steve Crawford, Mississippi State University's Glover Triplett and Harold Hurst, the University of Arkansas' Charlie Guy, USDA's George Langdale and Wayne Reeves…

And farmers like Arkansas' Bill Teeter, Louisiana's Ray Young, Mississippi's Bernard King, Oklahoma's Danny Davis and Tennessee's Andy King turned their farms into no-till research plots to learn how to make conservation tillage work in their area.

Along the way, those pioneers learned that not only did conservation tillage reduce soil loss; it also lowered fuel and equipment costs, improved moisture retention and increased yields.

When Farm Press Publications began the High Cotton program with The Cotton Foundation in 1995, we found that many of the nominees for the environmental stewardship awards program were either experimenting with no-till or had adapted some form of reduced tillage. (For a look back at the first 10 years of the program, see the High Cotton Special Edition in this issue.)

Three of this year's winners are continuing the tradition, planting most of their farms with minimum tillage. “Reduced tillage is my preferred way to plant,” says Mike Tyler, this year's Southwest winner. “Old crop stubble stays in place most of the year, so I don't see soil washing out of my fields with hard rains.”

You have to wonder what Tom McCutcheon would think about that. I have to believe he would be pleased.

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