Robert James grows a variety of no-till crops on his 305-acre farm located in Fayette County, Ky. As you enter his farm, you will notice the no-till wheat fields with a residue that blankets the ground.

The dominant soil is Maury silt loam (a fine, mixed, semiactive, mesic typic paleudalfs) with slopes ranging from 2% to 6%. His overall farming operation consists of 80 acres no-till corn; 50 acres no-till wheat; 75 to 90 acres double-cropped no-till rye and soybeans; 25 acres pasture; 25 acres hay/pasture; 5 acres wildlife; and 30 acres no-till tobacco.

James’ father was one of the first farmers to no-till corn in central Kentucky in the mid-1960s.

“My father was extremely conservation-minded and started no-tilling to stop erosion, as well as save time and money,” James says.

Due to developing weed problems and the lack of over-the-top chemicals for weed control, the James family started discing to control weeds. After a few years of discing, they developed a compacted layer in some of their fields. This caused them to change from discing to chisel plowing.

In 1989, Robert took over the family farming operation from his father. By this time, over-the-top chemicals for weed control had been developed and James decided to grow all corn and double-cropped wheat and soybeans using no-till.

James has been growing all his corn, wheat and soybeans using no-till for the past 18 years with good success. He is a good conservationist who cares about his land, evident by the conservation management practices implemented on his land to increase soil quality and protect against soil erosion.

One such management practice is the sowing of cover crops after soybeans. Due to limited amounts of residue left in fields after soybean harvest, James feels the need to keep something growing to limit soil erosion while increasing soil organic matter and soil quality.

“An important part of getting crops to grow is to conduct soil tests in each field,” he adds.

He not only checks for phosphorus and potassium, but also to ensure soil pH is correct and make sure micronutrients are available as well. One particular field had a low pH and developed a zinc deficiency causing suppression of plant growth took awhile for James to figure out the problem, but he learned to soil test for pH, macronutrients and micronutrients.

James first tried no-till tobacco in 2003. The first year he planted 5 acres, the second year he planted 10 and the third year he grew all 30 acres of his tobacco using no-till. He likes no-till tobacco because it saves time, labor, fuel and money.

He has noticed soil quality differences on his farm since implementing a no-till strategy. The soil is looser with less compaction due to less traffic, lighter equipment, more roots in the soil surface and higher amounts of organic matter left on the soil surface from crop residues. Crop residues come from previous crop fodder, stubble and cover crops.

The management of organic matter and plant roots are two of the keys to having and maintaining a high-quality healthy soil, James says. Organic matter or residue on the soil surface and the addition of roots below the soil surface protect the soil from erosion. Live plant roots encourage the formation of fungal hyphae and mycorrhizal fungi, two microbes responsible for building soil structure by forming larger more stable soil aggregates.

This encourages soil-building processes and soil quality. Conventional tillage decreases organic matter, the microbial food source, thereby disabling the ability of microbes to function to produce a healthy soil.

An important part of implementing a no-till system on any farm is crop rotation. James works with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist, Charles Farmer, to set up rotations on his crop field.

Crop rotations assist in breaking the cycle for disease, pest and weeds for particular crops. It's recommended that landowners not grow the same crop in the same field for more than 2 consecutive years. When rotating from one crop to another, it’s important to have crops in your rotation that are treated differently for disease, pests and weeds, and breaking the existing disease, pest and weed cycles.

James' outlook is to continue going straight no-till in the future.

“My yields have remained about the same as with conventional tillage," James says. "Advancements in equipment in the last few years has increased my ability to no-till long term. The introduction of row cleaners on no-till planters helps planters cut through existing surface residues, ensuring seeds get in the ground at proper depths and enabling good stands to develop. If over-the-top chemicals remain effective, I believe continuous no-till has a bright future.

“I would recommend no-till to other farmers, but would advise anyone interested in starting a no-till system to make sure they get the process down first. It’s important to know what chemicals to spray and how and when to apply them. Landowners need to know how to time and apply fertilizer and set up equipment to successfully implement a no-till system. I’m sold on no-till if for nothing else than the soil, time and fuel savings.”

Editor's Note: To see more Heroes of No-Till, visit the Kentucky NRCS Web site.