Industry figures returned to in-person sessions at the 2022 National No-Tillage Conference, held Jan. 4-7 at the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Ky.

No aspect of life in the pandemic has remained unscathed, and the 30th Anniversary of the National No-Tillage Conference was no different. Concern about the COVID-19 Omicron variant forced some minor changes to conference programming from a speaker who couldn’t attend to the absence of No-Till Farmer founding editor Frank Lessiter, and, of course, the presence of masks.

Amid these changes, portions of rural Kentucky were reeling from tornadoes that tore through the western part of the state on the evening of Dec. 10-11, storms that killed 76 people in the state, with others killed in Illinois, Tennessee and Missouri.

“You could not have predicted a model and a path that would have affected more farms in Kentucky,” state agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles told attendees during opening remarks.

But amid the storms and the virus there was hope. Attendees and organizers donated about $700 to assist with recovery efforts from the tornadoes. And the conference went off without a hitch.

Building on a Legacy

John Young, son of 1962 commercial no-till originator Harry Young Jr., and the scion of no-till pioneer Young family celebrated the family’s legacy.

The 60th anniversary of the planting of that plot was celebrated, along with the 30th conference anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first issue of No-Till Farmer magazine. 

“We’re trying to rebuild the soil,” Young says. “And I think that no-tillage with some other additions to that are probably the best chance we have for feeding the world in the next several generations.”

Alex and Jeffrey Young joined John Young on stage to talk about the present and future of no-till.

Taking No-Till Further

Indiana organic no-tiller Rick Clark talked about pushing the envelope in farm fields but paused to reflect on the keys to success.

“We’ve got to be positive moving forward,” he said.

At the same time, the transition to no-till, cover crops and reduced inputs also requires an additional ingredient beyond those usually listed in soil health regimes: commitment.

“If you are going to go down this road, you need total commitment,” he said.

Clark pushed for cereal rye and legume blends to supplant manufactured nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). In general terms, the taller the rye, the more he has saved on inputs, based on two-foot square samples of biomass he’s had tested.

For example, 28-inch-tall rye replaces $352.11 worth of synthetic inputs in 2022 values.

Clark himself has not used synthetic inputs for 8 years.

Smart Adoption

 Barry Fisher of Fisher Soil Health was a last-minute substitution for New Zealand soil expert Nicole Masters, whose flight was grounded by severe weather in Montana.

No-till is now expected to be competitive with conventional farming, he told attendees. However, it needs to improve further on multiple fronts, including using data to validate carbon credits. No-tillers can’t rest on their laurels, Fisher said.

“No-till is just the foundation,” he said. “It’s part of an overall soil health management system. You can’t just do one thing.”

The future of agriculture depends not only on integrating past or separately implemented practices into a cohesive whole, but also on adjusting to changes brought about by that integration, Fisher said. Practices like no-till and strip-till farming, adapted nutrient management, cover crops, diverse crop rotation, and new technology and integrated weed and pest management can play off of each other to create unanticipated changes.

“Change equals additional risk,” he said. “Our instinct for self-preservation means change doesn’t come easy for us.”

Rotational Success

In addition to general session presentations, attendees participated in 22 classrooms led by growers, industry pros and researchers.

Dwayne Beck, farm manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, said during one such classroom that more gradual crop rotation management techniques are effective at reducing insecticide and fungicide.

“The worst rotations are always the every-other-year rotations, because you always have 20-30 percent of whatever weed went to seed still there and viable,” he said. “My answer to anybody that says that tillage is going to take care of weeds is: If tillage worked to control weeds, we shouldn’t have any weeds left.”

Attendees also participated in 55 roundtable discussions on topics ranging from

Regional-, crop-, and equipment-specific concerns to more general concerns, like combining no-till with dairy farming, no-tilling vegetables and more.

Groups ranged from as many as 60 people to as few as four people, each led by a volunteer moderator with experience in the field.