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Reduced-tillage adds up to profits

When a farmer who barely scratches the surface talks, soil scientists and agronomists listen. Farmers from the western Piedmont to the Coastal Plain to the Blacklands of North Carolina had the floor at the Southern Conservation Tillage Conference held recently in Raleigh, N.C., presenting an on-farm case for the practice that reduces erosion, increases organic matter, and saves them money.

Soil scientists in attendance had plenty of questions after their presentations.

For Everette Medlin, it's about profit and stewardship. Medlin bought his first no-till rig in the mid-1980s and “disked and tilled till the early 90s” in the rolling hills of the southern Piedmont of Union County, N.C. The most tangible benefit stays in the field.

“When water runs clear out of your fields after a 2-inch rain, that's the greatest accomplishment,” Medlin says.

“When our creeks run red or brown, it's probably not from agriculture,” adds Tom Pegram, Union County, N.C., Extension agent. The soils are clay to clay-loam in nature in the six counties surrounding Charlotte.

Medlin notes changes in the soils: Cool temperatures and decreased lime requirements. He's also noticed a shift in weed pressure, but “the weed pressure will decrease,” Medlin says.

“It's a long-term commitment,” he says. “It takes three to five years. You've got to give the system a fair chance. Don't treat it like somebody you might not like.”

He credits no-till with putting many farms back together again and notes “no-till starts with harvesting.”

He put a straw/chaff spreader on the back of his combine to aid in residue management. “You're preparing the land for planting when you're harvesting,” Medlin says. A great sprayer is needed” because you're relying more on chemicals than on tillage.

“It's okay to farm ugly,” Medlin says. “You can't worry about what neighbors say unless they own the land.”

He advises farmers to start clean with a good burndown 21 days before planting, increasing seeding rates and being timely. “Above all else, you have to have a positive attitude.”

Go about as far north of Charlotte as you can in North Carolina and you'll find Kevin Matthews of Forsyth County. He and his wife farm 1,300 acres, all no-till. The 32-year-old Matthews is philosophical about the practice on corn, wheat and soybeans. “Today, no-till is not about erosion or conservation,” he says. “It's about profitability and staying in business.”

He's won corn yield contests and is expecting 300-plus bushels per acre this year.

Farmers in the Yadkin River Basin have wholeheartedly embraced no-till, says Mark Tucker, Forsyth County, N.C., Extension agent. “There's a yield advantage to no-till in our area.”

Matthews has seen seeding rates decrease and tillage reduced to a minimum.

“Every acre has got to produce,” Matthew says. He uses a 12-row, 20-inch planter, a no-till drill and a ripper. He shoots for leaving 98 percent of the residue on the ground.

On upland, he'll rip behind the combine every three years. Two tractors take care of the farm labor. He points out that a sprayer is the key element to no-till.

Matthews shoots for a pH level of 5.8-6.0 on corn and 6.0 on soybeans.

“I allow for the residue, so I put the seed deeper,” Matthews says. “For nitrogen on corn behind soybeans, I'll apply 160-180 pounds per acre and use the residual from the soybean crop.”

In the western Piedmont, farmers have been able to move to continuous no-till to deal with poor soils due to erosion, says Steve Gibson, Cleveland County, N.C., Extension agent. “A lot of things have changed over 25 years in the western Piedmont.”

In the northeastern Coastal Plain, Grant Staton and his father have found the benefits of strip-tillage on sandy soil on 1,600 acres of cropland, including cotton, peanuts, corn, soybeans and wheat. “We're being mandated to cut back on phosphorous loss,” Staton says.

For the past six years, they've been strip-tilling and tweaking the system every year. They manage an area of eight inches. They burn down the cover crop and use a KMC strip-till rig.

“In order to farm more acres, we found out we were able to get on the land sooner with strip-till after a rain,” Staton says.

They've also been experimenting with strip-till peanuts.

The biggest disadvantage to strip-tillage is the “ugliness factor,” Staton says.

“Also, in cotton there's a lot more disease pressure with cotton behind cotton and a shift in weed pressure,” Staton says. “The advantage is there's less weed pressure.”

In cotton following cotton, he uses aerial seeding to get the cover crop established while the current crop is still in the field. He's using rye and triticale. “We're being encouraged to delay killing the cover crop,” Staton says.

“With a cover crop in cotton, you're able to get by without cultivating,” says Arthur Whitehead, Halifax County N.C. Extension agent. “You're also saving trips across the field.” In the Blacklands of North Carolina, where the ground at its highest is only 67 feet above sea level, reduced-tillage has also made inroads with certain crops. Drainage canals in the eastern part of the county run for miles.

In the 1970s, farmers recognized the benefits of reduced-tillage, especially in corn, reports Gaylon Ambrose, Beaufort County, N.C., Extension agent. “They reduced costs and got a little yield bump in corn.”

On cotton, a crop that returned to the Blacklands in the 1990s, there's been no significant yield increase with reduced-tillage. In fact, last season, an especially wet one, growers who used no-till had significantly lower yields.

Beaufort County wheat producers have reduced their use of no-till over the last several years due to spring freeze injury. The current focus in wheat is to integrate variety, planting date and tillage, Ambrose says.


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