Politicians and green gurus preach how conservation is the right thing to do for the environment. But for most farmers, a long-term conservation system still has to pay the bills.
And for self-described conservationists Kenny Cain, of Darlington, IN, his brother Terry and nephews, Jess, Zach and Seth, “no-till has become the competitive advantage” on their 3,000-acre corn and soybean operation in west-central Indiana.
“We spend less money on fuel, we spend less time in the fields and we have a reduced overall capital investment in our equipment because we don't have to purchase bigger tractors and extra tillage equipment,” explains family economist Zach.
The Cains believe their 100% continuous no-till has increased the overall soil organic matter up to 2-3% on their farm. And the 15 acres of riparian buffers, 30 acres of highly erodible lands (HEL) seeded permanently to grasses, 150 acres of warm-season grass buffer strips and 30 acres of waterways have also played a significant role in the overall financial success of their operation.
“Combining the buffers with a continuous no-till system the fields are easier to manage,” says Barry Fisher, conservation agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “And the benefits of a conservation system far outweigh those of any individual practice.
“The longer you're in the system, the more exponentially the economic benefits of the individual practices will increase,” he points out.
FISHER REFERENCED THE importance of buffers in relation to improved soil and water quality, sustainability and management of the total system.
“The first two years in a conservation system may have a pretty steep learning curve, but the environmental benefits increase in a pretty steep curve, as well,” he says, such as reduced erosion and increased resistance to flooding.
For the Cains, it's a matter of economics going hand in hand with land stewardship. Kenny describes how he quickly noticed more porosity and looser soil in the fields from no-till.
“The soil wouldn't wash away because of the residue and earthworms,” he adds. “No-till allows the top profile of the soil to remain more arable.
“So with the buildup of organic matter in combination with its opportunity to breathe, this translated into higher yields for us,” says Kenny, who estimates an average of 175-bu./acre corn and 55-bu./acre soybeans on a clay/loam soil base.
One of the clear benefits the Cains point to in a long-term system is the reduced risk of erosion.
“Since we've been operating in this system, the soil stays put, and we don't send it and our nutrients downstream,” Kenny explains.
Terry says that since operating in a continuous no-till system, “we may have actually reclassified some of our soils.”
The Cain family attributes their improvement in overall soil health to not only continuous no-till production, but also to the technology, seed genetics and placement. Row cleaners and seed firmers have also been useful.
“We don't feel that we have to choose between profitability and doing the right thing,” Kenny adds. “It is about being good stewards of the land and being competitive and sustainable in the same breath,” Kenny explains. “The fuel savings, reduced soil loss, the fertility and yield boosts alone are reasons enough to make the transition.
“No-till has meant economic survival for us; it has increased our yields.
“No-till takes more management, but once you get the hang of the system, it's a no-brainer, it's so easy a caveman could do it.”