TALKING SHOP: 13th Annual National No-Tillage Conference, Cincinnati, OH
Emerging trends surface at national no-till conference

Attendees show strong support for practices that are certain to show up in the fields in coming seasons.

By Ron Perszewski

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 to emerge.

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 no-tilling offers.

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.

Other NNTC Highlights

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 tillage.

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.

Nutrient management

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.

Telling numbers

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 acre.

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: