April 14, 2005: With nearly 650 leading-edge
farmers, researchers and suppliers on hand for the 13th annual
National No-Tillage Conference, the event again revealed what’s
coming on strong in the no-tilling industry.
Cover crops, for example — especially annual ryegrass.
Based on the surging interest in the subject, you can expect
to see much more ryegrass in the fields in seasons to come
as knowledgeable no-tillers refine their practices.
More than 180 no-tillers attended the presentation “Cashing
In On Cover Crops For Soil Quality And Erosion Control,”
making it easily the most popular of the 12 classroom sessions
offered at the NNTC, held in Cincinnati, Jan. 12-15.
The cover crop classroom was led by Barry Fisher, coordinator
of the Indiana Conservation Tillage Initiative, and highly
regarded no-tiller Dan DeSutter of Attica, Ind. Together they
outlined the benefits of annual ryegrass and its astounding
root development, including: improved soil structure, tilth
and drainage; increased organic matter and nutrient availability;
and reduced erosion, weed pressure and allelopathy.
They also offered the cardinal rules of ryegrass management,
including removing the ryegrass in early spring, using residual
herbicides and applying plenty of early nitrogen.
As further evidence of the keen interest in the subject,
a group discussion about “Capitalizing On Cover Crops”
drew about 40 no-tillers, making it one of the best-attended
of the 60 Roundtable sessions at the NNTC.
Also, the Oregon Ryegrass Commission — an umbrella
organization representing ryegrass seed producers and suppliers
and a first-time co-sponsor of the NNTC — lured a steady
crowd to its information booth. Though the commission representatives
don’t themselves sell ryegrass during these events,
they fielded purchase offers for enough seed to fill three
semi-trailers, or roughly 132,000 pounds worth $66,000.
But the booming interest in ryegrass was not the only trend
Continuous no-tilling arising
Dan Towery, who had his finger on the pulse of the national
no-tilling scene in recent years through his work with the
Conservation Tillage Information Center, called on growers
to shoot for new highs through continuous no-tilling.
In his presentation “Connecting The Dots — Transitioning
To Continuous No-Till” to a full house, he estimated
that only 10 to 15 percent of U.S. cropland has been continuously
no-tilled for more than 5 years, despite the benefits of the
practice. Yet a show of hands during the presentation showed
that a remarkable 75 percent of the conference attendees use
a continuous no-till program.
Towery acknowledged that many farmers fear a yield drag with
continuous no-till, but he said that any loss of yield is
due to poor management decisions during the transition. And
he cautioned that a pass with a field cultivator or disc in
rotational tillage merely prolongs that transition.
Towery said the transition to continuous no-tilling can be
achieved successfully, and he offered details on the key factors,
including proper field preparation and planter set-up, crop
rotation, soil biology, nutrient management and weed control.
Even before Towery’s comments, the subject of continuous
no-tilling drew widespread attention. In the conference’s
opening session, Dan Gillespie, a Meadow Grove, Neb., no-tiller
and part-time NRCS assistant, drew a crowd for a presentation
about the benefits of 15 years of continuously no-tilling
his 690-acre farm. He questions whether growers are taking
full advantage of the soil quality improvements that long-term
Gillespie notes, for example, that a 1 percent increase in
soil organic matter from no-tilling provides, per acre, 10,000
pounds of carbon, 1,000 to 1,400 pounds of nitrogen, 167 to
200 pounds of phosphorus, 250 to 300 pounds of calcium, 111
to 133 pounds of magnesium and 123 to 145 pounds of sulfur.
• Carlos Crovetto, the
renowned no-tiller who turned rocky fields near
a mountain in Chile into prosperous cropland,
spoke about soil restoration. He told the audience
that only three things can bring soils back to
their natural level of organic matter. The methods
include permanent use as forestland, permanent
use as pastureland or continuous no-tilling.
He stressed that improving soil fertility requires
increasing its organic content. He also noted
that humus produced by organic matter decomposing
on the soil surface lasts four to 20 times longer
than buried humus, and that humus can retain water
up to 15 times its own weight.
• Jim Kinsella, a widely
known no-tiller from Lexington, Ill., advocated
the use of strip-tilling to gain the warm, dry
seedbed of conventional tillage while reaping
the environmental benefits of no-tilling. He suggests
fall strip-tilling ahead of corn to provide low-cost
insurance against the slow growth and reduced
yields of no-tilling in cold, wet springs and
the soil loss and degradation often plaguing conventional
• Natarajan Balachander
of Landec Ag Inc. advised no-tillers to weigh
the benefits and risks of early planting of corn.
The rewards include a longer growing season with
higher yields, better drydown at harvest and reduced
losses from lodging and frost in the fall. The
risks include poor stands due to chilling injury,
abnormal root development due to cold stress and
the danger of an early frost requiring replanting.
With those added nutrients “banked” in the soil,
long-term no-tillers can adjust their inputs each growing
season to meet reduced needs while maintaining a sufficient
balance over the long run, he says.
He has dropped his own nitrogen applications as low as 0.87
pounds per bushel of corn, he notes, well below the standard
recommendation of 1.2 pounds, while harvesting yields as high
as 250 bushels per acre.
However, a catastrophic rainfall in his area forced Gillespie
to wonder if long-term no-tilling has made his soil so biologically
active that it is actually breaking down residue so quickly
that erosion control is compromised. It’s an unanswered
question at this point, he says. Although his fields were
nowhere near as badly damaged as neighbors’ conventionally
tilled soils, he was forced to smooth out rills using machinery
of his own design.
Almost all of the conference attendees showed up for two
other related sessions, “Stretch Your Returns With Continuous
No-Tilling” and “Making Continuous No-Till Corn
Really Work,” by veteran Illinois no-tillers Dick Lyons
and Jeff Martin, respectively. Both sessions offered practical
insights to attendees.
For example, Lyons provided soil pH management tips such
as: Avoid a pH above 6.7 when using fall applying herbicides
containing metribuzin; use as little as 1 ton per acre of
agriculture limestone to avoid the roller coaster effect on
pH in the field; and check for stratification of soil pH in
the “plow layer” or top 7 inches of the field.
Martin said he has been moving to corn on corn for 5 years
because he expects an increase in Brazilian soybean yields
to drive down the U.S. market. Among the conclusions he shared:
There is no economic advantage to using starter fertilizer
in his no-till program; he selects corn hybrids based on plant
health and has seen a 30-bushel difference between varieties;
and he maintains seeding rates of 31,000 to 33,000 seeds per
This article was reprinted with permission from No-till
Farmer. For more information on no-till farming or next year’s
conference, which will be held January 11 – 14 in St.
Louis, MO, visit them online at: