In looking at all of the major developments in American agriculture over the past 75 years, no-till has to be ranked close to the top. The growth of no-till has played a tremendous role in reducing costly erosion on much of the nation’s cropland.
NO-TILL HISTORY. Ohio farmer Bill Richards (right) has seen no-till grow from 3.3 million acres in 1972 to an estimated 92 million acres in 2012. He credits no-till with making farming easier and protecting the soil from costly erosion.
In 1982, some 40% of the country’s cropland was eroding at an alarming rate as most growers were still relying on moldboard plows and heavy discs for intensive tillage. That was the same year that the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in West Lafayette, Ind., was organized.
The nonprofit public and private partnership’s goal was to provide a central clearing house where farmers, suppliers, government agencies and organization could find the latest information on various conservation programs. The organization has certainly lived up to its goal, as numerous achievements made by CTIC over the past 30 years serve as a model of what can be accomplished around the world when it comes to conservation efforts.
Right from the start, the group saw many advantages of getting more farmers to start no-tilling. When CTIC become a reality, 11.5 million acres of U.S. cropland were no-tilled, an increase from the 3.3 million acres that were no-tilled in 1972 when No-Till Farmer was first published. The latest USDA estimates indicate about 92 million acres were no-tilled in 2012.
During a recent CTIC 30th-anniversary meeting, a panel discussion zeroed in on what has happened during the past 3 decades in terms of progress in the conservation area. The five panel members agreed that no-till was the most significant development to take place in agriculture since World War II. Yet at the same time, other developments in American agriculture made it possible for no-till to grow as rapidly as it has and demonstrated the value of taking a systems approach with reduced tillage.
Veteran no-tiller Bill Richards from Circleville, Ohio, and his sons have been no-tilling for more than 40 years. The former chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says no-till has allowed the family to boost yields while trimming costs.
“Planting is getting much easier with no-till, and the practice has allowed the country’s farmers to provide more affordable food and fuel to the nation,” says Richards. “A key no-till benefit is that rain falls on residue rather then on bare soil, which dramatically reduces soil erosion.
“No-till also lets farmers effectively farm marginal land. And in this age of encouraging sustainable farming, no-till is way ahead of the curve.”
Bruce Knight, another former NRCS chief, has been no-tilling for more than 10 years on the family’s farm in South Dakota.
“We saw the real benefits of no-till during this year’s drought,” says the owner of Strategic Conservation Solutions in Washington, D.C. “You see the real benefits of how no-till works when it’s part of a bigger food-production system.”
Steve Taylor credits more effective weed control with making no-till possible for many farmers.
“We had to park the tillage equipment and the cultivator,” says the president of the Missouri Agribusiness Coalition and a farmer in central Missouri. “Huge improvements with chemical weed control allowed farmers to dramatically expand no-tilled acres.”
New developments with genetic traits over the past 30 years have not only pushed up yields, but led to effective protection against what used to be sizeable losses due to weeds, diseases and insects.
This has allowed growers to make fewer trips across the fields to deal with pests and led to farmers readily adapting more cost-efficient no-till practices.
Mechanization Came Fast
Knight says the major change in his family’s farming and ranching operation after World War II occurred when his father sold the draft horses.
“With mechanization, farmers no longer had to use 20% of their crops to feed the horses,” he says. “The result was that we could provide more food at a reasonable price to feed a growing nation.”
With the increased population around the world, Knight says U.S. farmers will have to dramatically increase productivity. He maintains no-till is one of the best ways to get this done.
Knight says new precision farming developments have enabled growers to be precise on nearly everything they do in terms of crop production. This area continues to grow with more precision technology developments coming nearly every month.
Brent Haglund took a different tact when evaluating major ag developments. The president of the Sand Country Foundation and the Bradley Fund for the Environment in Madison, Wis., credits improved farm-equipment mechanization with playing a role in expanding the country’s conservation-tillage acres. He says developments in farm mechanization and safety improvements have led to fewer trips across fields while making farming much less dangerous.
Jane Frankenberger, head of Purdue University’s Extension program in soil and water engineering, credits numerous water-management techniques with helping expand no-till acres. A significant chance is the increased emphasis on tile drainage in solving water-retention concerns and making more effective use of available water.
Richards points to CTIC’s long-standing role in forming public-private partnerships to advance conservation tillage.
“In 1990, we were failing to meet the requirements of the 1985 Farm Bill,” he recounted. “The Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS) reached out to CTIC and industry and promoted residue management. CTIC was the vehicle to do what government does not do well — marketing and working with partners.”
The concept of partnerships was emphasized repeatedly throughout the panel discussion. Frankenberger pointed out that conservation — not just erosion control, but also management of dissolved pollutants in water flowing from farm fields — will require “strong and robust partnerships that are moving our knowledge base ahead.”
Knight underscored the importance of partnerships. “Almost every success we’ve had in the last 30 years in conservation has been because of partnerships,” he noted.
Sustainability Is Critical
With tightening crop supplies, Knight says more no-till acres are needed to provide the world’s growing population with reasonably priced food, fiber and fuel.
“We must improve our agricultural production to be sustainable,” says Knight. “Sustainability is economics, productivity and being socially responsible all wrapped together.”
When it comes to giving more emphasis to sustainability, that’s a practice most no-tillers maintain they’ve been doing successfully for more than 4 decades.