Source: TimesDaily, Florence, AL

About half of northwest Alabama’s farmers have embraced the “no-till” method, in which no till or disk is ever used to plant new crops. It has produced equal, if not better yields and is the farming equivalent of going green.

Most non-farmers still envision the planting process as a tractor pulling a tiller or disks to churn up dirt in shallow, parallel rows across the earth. In truth, that is an old-school practice many are increasingly abandoning, and one conservation services leaders are encouraging farmers to abandon for the good of the land, and their pocketbooks.

No-till farming means planting seeds right over the ground cover left behind by a previous crop, directly into the unturned soil. It’s a part of soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” — soil created by leaving mown crop parts to wither and become mulch.

No-till seems to be a panacea to many modern problems for growers, including high production costs, a diminishing workforce, increasingly extreme weather and the threat of government regulation of agricultural pollution.

“Our goal is for people to do as little tillage as possible,” says Matt Copeland, of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. “No more than 50% of the farmers in the Tennessee Valley right now are no-till farmers, and we’d like to see that number increase.”

The Natural Resource Conservation Service defines “no-till” literally, so those who till any crops or portion of their acreage don’t meet that standard. But Copeland says few of the other 50% till with old-fashioned abandon. 

“The other 50% practices conservation tillage,” he says. “They are using some form of implement to till up the ground, but they are doing a good job of managing the erosion.”

One of the first in northwest Alabama to adopt the practice of no-tilling was Lendon Brown, who farms 2,000-3,000 acres with his brother, Dwight.

They first tried planting without tillage in 1993, and now don’t till at least two-thirds of their cropland.

“It’s been a big advantage to us,” Lendon says. “I don’t ever want to go back. I’ve got conventional wheat I drill behind a disk. That’s it. And I don’t till some of it where the ground is soft.”

While some report diminished crop yields for a year or two after they transition to no-till, Brown says he experienced no dropoff.

“Our yield has stayed right there with the conventional,” he says. “And it does work better during droughts.”

Fields no longer need nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide and can produce yields above a county average with less labor and lower costs. Untilled land creates little erosion, the key cause of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s — known as the “Dirty Thirties” in drought-stricken farmlands of the southern plains, primarily Oklahoma.

Soil conservation is an advantage, but the first thing Neal Isbell noticed when he began no-tilling was a more obvious boon.

“The savings in fuel costs was one of the biggest things,” said Isbell, who farms with sons Todd and Shane. Isbell said they are 100 percent no-till, and he ticks off the advantages.

“It takes a lot less tractor power — we don’t have to till the land up — and labor costs — we don’t have to get the labor. Of course, the conservation is a lot better. A lot of organic matter holds the soil in place and you don’t have the runoff.”

Lendon Brown recommends it to all farmers.

“Most of them are doing it for some of their crops anyway,” he says. “We stay with no-till all the way, because of the cost of gas. Roundup (grass and weed killer) is still going for $18 a gallon, $4 an acre. That’s all we have to put on it.”

Steve Carpenter, who owns Jack-O-Lantern Farms, practices what is called “minimum till.”

“We do a form of no-till — planting our vegetables on plastic. We still have to work the middles out,” he says of hoeing grass and weeds out of the cropland. “But you don’t have to plow it because the water is injected directly into the (root area). That cuts down on the fuel bill and tractor use.”

Carpenter says he’s found vegetables difficult to grow using complete no-till, and Brown still turns up the soil where he plants wheat. He says farmers north of the Tennessee River are less inclined to no-till because of the red clay soil prevalent in southern Tennessee.

Colbert County Extension Coordinator Danny McWilliams says most who continue to till likely are just comfortable with what they know. And there are factors to weigh before jumping to no-till.

“No-till equipment is not cheap,” he says. “Your planter and chemical spray rig are your most important investments. If you don’t have a good stand when you plant a crop, you’re not going to have a good crop. It’s the same with your chemical applications.

“You can do a lot of damage to your crop if you put out the wrong chemicals or use too much or too little. So you need adequately trained people to run it.”

Isbell says some simply don’t want to change.

“They’ve been successful with what they’re doing, and they’re doing just as good a job or better than we are,” he says.

Even though he no-tills everything, including wheat, Isbell acknowledged soil can change even farm to farm in the region.

“Soil compaction is still a problem in some parts,” he says. “They can’t make no-till work.”

McWilliams says the changes in soil is a regional conundrum.

“What works on Isbell farm might not work on the Underwood farm 30 miles down the road. It’s difficult to understand,” he says.

But most see the future of farming becoming more and more no-till. Copeland says farmers once had to choose between till and no-till planters, but modern planters will do either.

McWilliams says the variety of seeds these days makes no-till more attractive.

“The amount of technology and equipment available to farmers now will absolutely blow your mind,” he says. “Some varieties of seed perform better under no-till. If you can imagine a car lot with 100 cars, that’s basically how many varieties there are in seeds.

“You have to decide which is best for you.”