Sixty years ago, my dad was the originator of no-till on the farm in a little field just south of Herndon, Ky.
I was 11 years old when Harry Young planted that field 60 years ago. At my next birthday, I’ll be 72, Lord willing. That’s a long time. And yet, in a way, it’s a short time when you compare that to the number of years that erosion had taken place in the U.S. We’re trying to rebuild the soil. I think no-tillage — with some other additions and modifications — is probably the best chance we have of feeding the world in the next several generations.
My dad was a B-24 pilot in World War II, and my mom was in the Navy. Just a few years after that, my dad was one of the first no-till innovators.
The times back then were a lot different than they are now. If you were born at the end of World War II, you would’ve just barely been getting your driver’s license when he first planted no-till. He went to Dixon Springs, Ill., and saw it in a postage-stamp sized plot that George McKibben had. My dad thought about no-till and said, “I think I can do it.” He came home, and he built a planter.
He pulled that old mule-drawn planter out of the fence row and welded it up at a local shop. We didn’t even have a welder on the farm back then. That first year, he planted less than one acre of no-till corn. They didn’t even know what to call it back then — they called it no-plow corn.
“The past should be a lamp post, not a hitching post…”
In our part of Kentucky, we don’t have flat, black soil. We have rocks. Then on the hills, we have bigger rocks. In the low ground, we do have a little postage stamp here and there of good soil. You go up over the hills, and it’s one type of soil. Down in the bottom, it’s higher organic matter and more productive.
The question is, does no-till work? After 60 years, I can stand here and tell you conditionally, yes. Now, the condition is this. If you do it right, it will work. If you don’t do it right, you’ll make a mess. Get it right, listen to other no-tillers, and I believe you’ll do a good job.
Getting It Right
Some of our yields may look like a drought and a failure to no-tillers with flat, black land. But in our part of Kentucky, we have almost none of that.
We had good wheat in 2021. I think the Kentucky average yield winner was somewhere around 120 bushels per acre. Ours is all no-till wheat, and it’s doing really well. 2021 wheat yields were all around 100 bushels per acre with spots topping 140.
No-Till Farming’s Barrier Breaker
In February, No-Till Farmer president Mike Lessiter asked John Young what might have happened had no-till’s first commercial crop been in the hands of another, less humble farmer. John responded with these five characteristics of a pioneer and how his dad lived up to those traits:
1. First and foremost, my father was a teacher. Even before he moved back to the farm, he thrived on being able to present useful information to those around him. He was an instructor of pilots during World War II, then a state farm management specialist for the University of Kentucky’s Extension Service, a Sunday School teacher, then a young farmer teacher in our Christian County, Ky., area, then a nationwide speaker for no-tillage.
It seems to me that anyone who expects to have influence during the time they spend here on Earth must be able to teach. Some people are better at writing, some at speaking, and a few are good at both written and verbal communication. Harry Young was one of those who could do both and do them well.
2. The second thing that seems to set pioneers, my father included, aside from many others is that they are constantly looking for a better way of doing things. How would you ever know something is better unless you are looking for it, while wishing the old way would just go away?
Most of us are so fixed on what we have always done that we can’t see the possibilities of something different. Daniel Boone came to Kentucky with just that thought in mind. The Wright Brothers and Thomas Edison — and no-till legends like George McKibben, Eugene Keeton, Howard Martin and Harry Young — were among those who were on the lookout for something better.
3. A third thing that sets pioneers aside is personality. This is more subjective than objective, but it may be the most important characteristic of all. Nobody wants to learn something new from somebody who is unlikeable. A teacher with a friendly, winsome, gregarious personality is just as important as the information itself. There is a little bit of salesman in every pioneer.
My mother used to tell us “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Being able to engage people on their level is important if lasting changes are to be won.
4. A fourth item that must be present for a pioneer to be heard (at least in agriculture) is the subject matter itself. A pioneer must not only be convinced that his new idea is worth pursuing, but he must also be correct in his assessment. A dumb, dead-end idea is only accepted when it is part of a political platform. In farming, things must work successfully in order for them to be accepted.
5. Finally, I would include a whole group of characteristics in what have been called “the lesser virtues.” That phrase originated in a book called The Poverty of Nations by Grudem and Asmus. These lesser virtues consist of a job well done, timeliness, cleanliness, gratitude and cheerfulness. There may be others, but those are the ones that come to mind. They don’t turn a bad idea into a good one, but they make the swallowing of new information much more pleasant to those who hear it for the first time. Taken together, they can also make the difference between a successful business and a failure.
Our double-crop soybeans in 2021 averaged nearly 60 bushels per acre. These may not be Minnesota bean yields, but in Kentucky, that’s pretty good for double-crop soybeans. To get net income per acre, add your wheat and bean sales together minus expenses. Typically in western Kentucky, you can make as much net profit on wheat and double-crop soybeans as you can on 200-bushel corn.
“Does no-till work? After 60 years, I can tell you conditionally, yes…”
When we’re talking about looking into the future, I sincerely believe that those who take advantage of forecasting will do a better job of making a profit. A tremendous amount of mathematics goes into it. If you, like me, are not an extremely good math student or an economist, then you need to listen to someone who is – no matter what forecasting service you use. I’m not here to sell one particular service. But somebody, somewhere, should be advising you on forecasting so you can make good decisions.
I look forward to the time when my grandchildren take over the farm from my son, Alexander, and the next generation after I’m gone. I think I’ll be able to look back and see that even when I’m gone, Lord willing. Someone has said that the history of what we see is all very well and good, but the past should either be a lamp post or a sign post, not a hitching post. You can’t paddle a canoe on yesterday’s river.
The No-Till History Series, appearing throughout 2023, is supported by Montag Mfg. For more historical content, including video/multimedia, visit www.No-TillFarmer.com/historyseries.