While no-till farming practices have established themselves or rapidly expanded in many regions of the U.S., it appears agronomists in Mississippi have a different problem — getting no-till off the ground.
Ernie Flint, Mississippi Extension Area Agronomist, recently explained the virtues of no-till crops in an AgFax.Com submission.
Flint says that while doing research work during the 1990s, he found that cotton growing in no-till soil during a drought period transpired as much, if not more water, than plants growing in tilled soil.
Moisture tests done on soil cores showed that even though no-till soil was significantly drier, cotton plants growing in it were getting enough water to remain active, while plants in tilled soil were obviously wilted and suffering the effects of moisture stress.
“Since then,” Flint writes, “I’ve seen this difference many times in actual field environments — not only in cotton, but in other crops. Corn plants show this difference more quickly than the other field crops we grow.”
One of the primary reasons no-till plants can extract more water from soil, Flint says, is that the mycorrhizal network is still intact, whereas it has been damaged by tillage in conventional cropping systems. This network is formed by beneficial fungi that act as an extension of the plant’s root system to find water and nutrients. Flint says porosity and improved organic activity are also factors.
But these concepts aren’t catching on with many growers in the South. Flint acknowledges that no-till has some problems, just like conventional tillage, but when the most stressful periods of heat and drought arrive, no-till usually proves its worth — especially for those who can’t irrigate.
Flint knows some farmers will point out fields that suffered under no-till conversion, but he suspects those failures have more to do with poor drainage, poor fertility, low soil pH, or compaction resulting from decades of tillage and soil erosion.
“Problems like these have to be addressed before crops can be grown in any system, and especially in reduced tillage,” he wrote.
“However, I commonly see growers who go to great lengths and expense to end-run these problems without dealing with the basic soil-quality issues that would have made reduced tillage work for them.”
Flint says the adoption of a paradigm change, like converting to reduce tillage, may require generations to accomplish in his area. He says he’s often reminded that the shift to hybrid corn took over 30 years, even though the benefits were immediate and apparent.
“The conversion of Southern farmers to something as management-related as no-till may require much more time than that,” he says. “However, if no-till crops ‘weather’ this drought — as they likely will — the adoption period may be shortened.”
Here’s hoping that growers in cotton country will speed up the learning curve a bit, so they can reap the benefits of no-till that farmers in North are already enjoying. Sometimes a successful journey starts with taking that first step.