4 keys to no-till success
Al Miron is having success with no-till on his eastern South Dakota farm.
“I’m not an expert,” says Miron, of Crooks, who has been no-tilling for 25 years. He says he is continually tinkering with the system, trying to make it even better.
Here are some of his keys to successful no-till.
Miron’s top priority is capturing and conserving as much precipitation as possible.
After several years of no-till, an undisturbed soil absorbs more water than one that has been tilled. Decaying plant roots leave behind channels that carry water into the soil. Earthworm populations increase and create more worm holes for water to flow through. Tillage destroys these natural channels. Organic matter content increases when you no-till: the higher the organic matter content, the more water that can be absorbed. Miron’s farm’s organic levels have risen from about 2.5% to 4.7% over the past 25 years.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service recently did a water infiltration test on the farm. It took two minutes for 1 inch of water to move through a no-till soil sample, vs. 11 minutes through a conventional-till sample. When 2 inches of water were applied, the infiltration rate was nine minutes for the no-till and 41 minutes for the conventional-till.
The longer it takes water to soak into the soil, the more water runs off to low areas, where it ponds or floods.
• Problems with cool, wet soils are manageable, says longtime no-tiller.
• Water and residue management are two key steps for success.
• Planter adjustment and fertilizer management play roles as well.
Keeping the ground covered with crop residues helps conserve moisture by reducing the evaporation rate.
Miron tiles problem areas of the fields so that he doesn’t have to till to dry them out in the spring.
“You have to follow the rules about wetlands,” Miron cautions. “I don’t tile wetlands.” Staying in compliance isn’t hard, he says. It can be as simple as running a solid pipe instead of perforated pipe through protected areas.
Crop residue management
Second, Miron manages crop residue to increase the seedbed temperature, particularly for corn. That starts at harvest. Miron doesn’t chop cornstalks. He also adjusts the combine chaff spreader to distribute the residue that goes through the combine as evenly across the whole width of the header as possible.
Miron rotates corn and soybeans. Soybeans aren’t hurt by higher levels of corn residue at planting. In fact, sometimes he wishes he had more residue to feed the growing population of soil organisms in his soils. The soil microbial life is so high after 25 years of no-till that residue on the soil surface is consumed very rapidly, he says.
Miron is now planting a cover crop after harvesting corn, partly in an effort to increase the amount of residue that will be available to protect the soil and feed soil organisms.
Planter attachments, adjustment
Third, Miron makes sure the planter is set up and is operating properly for soil conditions. The John Deere 1770 NT planter is equipped with Dawn row cleaners that move residue off the row, and rubber-spiked Cruiser closing wheels that cover and firm the seed row. Both attachments need to be monitored to make sure they are working effectively, as soil conditions and residue levels change. Down pressure is key, too. Too much down pressure will place seed too deep, especially when the soil is wet and soft.
Fourth, Miron aggressively manages fertility. He soil-tests every year, takes two or three tissue tests during the growing season and does stalk tests in the fall to make sure the fertilizer rate is right. He applies fertilizer for corn at planting in a 3-by-2-inch placement from the seed.
“I’ve put the money I saved on equipment, fuel and labor [due to no-till] into fertilizer, and it has really paid off,” he says.
Miron’s yield goals used to be 100 bushels per acre for corn and 30 to 40 bushels per acre for soybeans. Now it is 200 bushels for corn and 50 to 60 bushels for soybeans. He attributes part of the yield increase to no-till.
This article published in the September, 2014 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.
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