No-till producer Jerry Perkins of Worthington, Minn., said it’s been a long, lonely journey.
His counterpart across the border, Al Miron, said he would quit farming before he would quit no-till on his farm near Crooks, S.D. He has run a no-till operation with a partner in that area of rolling hills for about 25 years.
And another South Dakotan, Lon Hall of Arlington, said his son is doing research on cover crops, he’s working with SDSU Extension officials on double cropping with forage and soybeans, and he hopes to hand the reins of the operation to his son to further this “sustainable crop” method.
All three talked with a large crowd at a “South Dakota Soil Health Challenge” program Dec. 9 at the SDSU Regional Extension Center in Sioux Falls. Researchers joined those farmers in talking about no-till, cover crops and other ways to help improve soil health and the benefits of it.
Perkins gave one of the most impassioned talks about no-till. He said he’s made a lot of mistakes since starting with no-till in 1976, but “if you aren’t making a few mistakes, you aren’t learning.”
He said no-till is a “long-term thing” and a producer can’t expect to try it for one to three years and see dramatic results.
He said ag economists are cautioning that producers are heading for a time of more uncertainty, so there’s no better way to position for the future than to protect the main resource – the soil.
“It can take you out of your comfort zone and it takes practice,” he said of improving soil health by reducing tillage. “I would suggest you try it on a small scale first and learn the ins and outs and don’t worry about the mistakes.”
Perkins said he’s had a few partners along the way with Natural Resources Conservation Service, university, Extension and local watershed officials, but even today, no-till operations “still aren’t catching on.” He said there are very few other no-till operators in his home county of Nobles.
“It’s kind of like the corporations. Quarterly profits outstrip everything else,” he said.
He said a more balanced approach is what’s needed, and that includes profitability, quality of life and “maintaining our resources.”
More is starting to be learned about the soil, he said, and it’s been said that “we know more abut the stars and planets” than we do about the soil.
He is semi-retired now and rents out his land, but he said one of his requirements for renters is that they use no-till, strip-till or ridge-tilling on the land.
Miron said he’s always willing to talk to any producers about his no-till operation. The proof of his success soil with no-till, he said, is that organic matter has increased from 2.5 percent to 4.7 percent. Other benefits are increased water infiltration, water conservation, consistently good yields and reduced trips across the fields.
Hall said his son has all kinds of plans for cover crops on their farm to keep something growing on the fields, thus preventing erosion and feeding the soil on a year-round basis.
He urged producers to work with Extension and university officials to “let them make the mistakes.”
He has been applying a cocktail mix of seeds in the fall of rye, oats, radishes and turnips, although three dry falls in succession have caused an establishment problem. The rye, however, has been able to come back in the spring to help feed the soil and aid moisture control.
All three producers talked about how worms are found in their soil with the no-till, an indication of soil health and improved infiltration, and about how plant roots spread out farther even into the middle of rows.
Wrapping up the daylong conference was Dwayne Beck, who operates the Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre and the Missouri River.
The SDSU Extension specialist and longtime promoter of no-till operations said the farm is producer-owned, which allows a longer-term look at production successes. He also is a big promoter of cover crops, crop rotations and increasing organic matter. His statistics from the farm show what’s been working over many years of operation there.
Beck said federal government programs don’t favor maintaining soil health as someone with 10,000 acres, for example, will put 1,000 acres into CRP and then “beat the hell out of the other 9,000 acres.”
Using crop rotations can improve soil health and also clean up resistance to some weeds that farmers are seeing in the state.
As for cover crops, he said the secret is that they should be “cheap.” He suggested seeing what’s left over in the seed shed and using that to help keep costs down. He also said more research is needed on cover crops as it’s more guesswork now than science, although having something growing on the land year-round fits more into the natural eco-system that’s needed to keep soil healthy.
“Cover crops can be another component in crop rotation,” he said.
What they do at Dakota Lakes is put cover crops behind wheat to help restore carbon into the cropping system. They use millet, oats or annual rye grass, which helps in the crop rotation, too.
Beck said the “masters of organic matter” used to be the Argentines, who would use their land for seven years as pasture, then seven years as crop land with a corn and soybean rotation.
The soil structure was amazing, although he said that system has fallen apart now with increased crop production and more continuous soybean fields.
Beck said the main goal in South Dakota should be increase organic matter in the soil, and that’s done by leaving more residue on the land.