A look back at the last 10 years may reveal that you have fewer hairs on the top of your head (or more of them colored gray). As for the collective farming operations of No-Till Farmer readers, a number of trends have emerged from the past decade of no-till operational benchmark surveys that no-tillers graciously took the time to answer.
The editors of No-Till Farmer identified 20 trends they believe are worth noting and that you may want to compare your no-till management system against.
1 No-Till Corn Yields Going Up. While many factors impact yield, there’s no doubt no-till corn yields have made substantial strides the past decade. (See Table 1.)
In 2008, the average corn yield reported by No-Till Farmer readers was 156 bushels per acre, but that average climbed to 181 bushels per acre in 2017 — an all-time high for the survey and an 11-bushel increase over the prior year.
There have been exceptions to increases through the years, including just 151 bushels per acre in 2010, 148 bushels per acre in 2011 and 134 bushels per acre in the drought year of 2012. But since 2012, no-till corn yields have improved by 35%.
2 Soybeans Movin’ on Up, Too. No-tillers have been enjoying better soybean yields over the past decade. (See Table 2.) While 2017 yields of 54.8 bushels per acre were actually down from the 2016 record-high average of 57.5 bushels per acre, they are considerably higher than Year 1 of the benchmark study in 2008.
No-till soybean yields are up 10 bushels per acre, or 22.2%, from 2008 averages of 45 bushels per acre.
3 Strip-Tillers Report Best Corn Yields. No-Till Farmer readers who are strip-tilling corn have consistently reported the highest yields throughout the 10 years of the study. While it’s likely true that strip-till is commonly used on better-producing acreage and no-till corn often gets the nod on more marginal acres, strip-till corn has nonetheless averaged 177.6 bushels per acre over the 10-year study vs. 160 bushels per acre for no-tilled corn.
4 Cover Crops Have Taken Off. No-tillers have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to covering their fields. While there is no definitive national data available, it’s estimated by some cover crop experts that perhaps 10% of all U.S. farmers are seeding a cover crop today.
In Year 1 of our benchmark study, 49% of No-Till Farmer readers said they used a cover crop. Today, 83% of readers are using covers. (See Figure 1) Only in 2009 and 2011 did fewer readers seed cover crops, as a late harvest due to wet conditions hampered cover crop seeding.
Even in the drought year of 2012, the percentage of readers using cover crops increased significantly over the prior year.
5 Multispecies Covers on Rise. As no-tillers have become more familiar with cover crops and their confidence has grown in raising them, the diversity of species grown has increased dramatically.
Probably for its simplicity of establishment and desiccation, cereal rye is the most popular cover crop with 74% of cover croppers growing it in 2017 compared to 44% in 2010.
Several other species have seen substantial growth in usage among cover croppers, including radishes from 35% in 2010 to 50% in 2017; small grains like oats, barley and wheat from 34% to 51%; clovers from 15% to 37%; pea species from 12% to 21%; and hairy vetch from 6% to 14%.
Annual ryegrass has maintained a steady following at 26% of No-Till Farmer readers over the past 8 years.
6 Roundup Ready on the Outs? Well, at least it appears that could be the case with soybeans. More than 20 years ago, no-tillers led the way for Roundup Ready adoption in soybeans, but it appears they are interested in other technologies.
In 2010, 95.2% of No-Till Farmer readers raised Roundup Ready beans, but only 67.6% are using the technology today. (Note: Roundup Ready will be found in most varieties, but this indicates whether no-tillers will use the technology.)
Despite application and drift issues last year, dicamba-tolerant varieties are the big winners with 35.6% of no-tillers planning to use the technology. Meanwhile, LibertyLink adoption continues to grow with 24.7% of readers using those varieties vs. just 8.1% in 2010.
7 Polar Opposites with Seed Populations. While no-tillers have been willing to spend more in seed corn through increased populations in an effort to hit higher yields, they have decided that they don’t need to plant as many soybean seeds to maintain yields.
With few exceptions, corn seed populations have increased year over year from 30,535 seeds per acre in 2009 to 31,794 last year (4.1% increase).
Whether using a no-till planter or drill, soybean seed populations have been declining. (See Figure 2) Drill populations have fallen 5.3% from 168,238 seeds per acre in Year 1 of the study to 159,241 last year. Planter populations have dropped 6.2% from 154,818 to 145,245.
8 Planters Preferred for Soybeans. With no-tillers planting 8.8% fewer seeds when they use a no-till planter vs. a drill, perhaps it’s no surprise that planters are becoming more popular for no-tilling soybeans.
In 2010, 64% of no-tillers used a planter vs. 52% for drills. The gap has widened today to 70% of no-tillers using planters vs. 38% with no-till drills. Air seeders are used by 10.2%.
9 No-Tillers Trim Nitrogen Rates. For the past 9 years, we’ve asked no-tillers how much nitrogen (N) they’ve applied in relation to their anticipated corn yields. Whether due to lower commodity prices, high N costs or improved soil biology (or a combination of those factors), no-tillers are applying less N. In 2010, 17% of readers were applying less than 0.8 pounds of N per anticipated bushel of corn yield vs. 19.7% in this year’s study.
No-tillers applying 0.8-0.99 pounds of N per bushel of corn yield have grown from 42% to 49.2%. Even more telling, the percentage of farmers applying 1.0-1.2 pounds of N per bushel of corn has fallen from 40% to 29.2% over the same period.
10 Let’s Sidedress N. No-Till Farmer readers have become more diverse in application timings for N. In 2010, they averaged 1.83 applications of N per season into corn, but that has risen to 2.0 for 2018.
Sidedress applications have seen a substantial increase with 72.5% of no-tillers saying they will apply N once corn is out of the ground in 2018 vs. just 58.1% in 2010.
There’s also been an uptick in spring pre-plant N applications throughout the years from 38.6% of readers to 43.7%.
11 What’s Popular for N Source? While 28% and 32% solutions of liquid N are the most popular forms of N for no-tillers, another form of N has made significant gains in corn. Ammonium sulfate was used by 20.8% of No-Till Farmer readers in 2010, but will grow to 29.7% of no-tillers in 2018.
12 Soybeans Seeing Less Fertilizer. While no-tillers have slowly been pulling back on applied N rates in corn, they may be looking to save more dollars with applications to soybeans.
Comparing the percentage of farmers applying fertilizer to soybeans from 2010 to 2018, all forms of nutrients have declined, including 30.4% to 23.1% of growers applying N; 71.8% to 57.4% for phosphorus; 79.7% to 70.1% for potassium; and 49.9% to 44.8% for micronutrients.
13 Micros Get Major Look. No-Till Farmer tracked micronutrient usage by no-tillers from 2010 to 2014, although the data isn’t specific to any single crop. During that 5-year period, micronutrient use grew in nearly all categories, including sulfur from 60% to 70% of no-tillers and zinc from 53% to 63%.
From 2015 to 2017, micronutrient usage has been tracked by corn and soybeans. During that 3-year period, most micronutrients have seen small declines in usage amongst no-tillers as they perhaps look to trim input costs.
14 Cropping Acreage Inching Downward. In Year 1 of the no-till benchmark study, 1,269 was the average number of cropping acres for a No-Till Farmer reader.
Today, the average cropping acres stands at 1,147 — an all-time low in the 10-year study. The average never fell below 1,200 acres in the first 6 years of the study, but has been under 1,200 during the past 4 years.
15 More Confidence in No-Till? Rotational tillage is a term often applied to acreage that sees both no-till and tillage practices, depending upon the crop grown. In Year 1 of our benchmark study, 61% of No-Till Farmer readers’ corn acres were no-tilled, but that increased to 67% the past 2 years.
That said, no-till was used on 89% of soybean acres in both Year 1 and Year 10, while 87% of wheat acres were no-tilled this past year vs. 83% in Year 1 of the study.
16 No-Tillers Love Precision. With one exception, precision equipment is being purchased and more utilized by No-Till Farmer readers.
Back in 2010, 42% of No-Till Farmer readers were using lightbars for guidance systems; today, that number stands at 38% — a 4-point decline. Taking the place of lightbars for many farmers is GPS tractor auto-steer. While only 34% of No-Till Farmer reader used that technology in 2010, some 55% of no-tillers now use tractor auto-steer.
Other increases in precision technology from 2010 to the present include field mapping (36% to 51%); variable-rate seeding (14% to 27%); variable-rate fertility (27% to 34%); and satellite aerial imagery (8% to 18%). More recently, No-Till Farmer has begun tracking other precision technology tools and seen increases in drone usage (2.5% in 2014 to 10.1% in 2017); auto-seed shutoff (29.9% in 2015 to 38.5% in 2017); and auto-boom/nozzle shutoff (32.2% to 41.5%).
17 Sprayer Type Flips. Pull-type sprayers were owned and operated by 43% of No-Till Farmer readers in 2010 vs. self-propelled ownership at 37%, but that has flipped through the years.
Today, more no-tillers own self-propelled models at 44% vs. 33% for pull-type sprayers.
18 Fewer Coulters, More Closing Wheels. Unlike the early days of no-till when coulters were a common planter attachment, coulters are becoming less common on no-till planters. On 53% of no-till planters in 2010, coulters have fallen to 48% currently.
Meanwhile, closing wheels have seen substantial growth, heading upward from 78% of no-till planters in 2010 to 87% this year. Pop-up applicators have increased on no-till planters from 35% to 44%, and down-pressure systems have seen a 6-point increase from 36% to 42%.
19 Planters Getting Bigger. More than one-third of the no-till planters used by No-Till Farmer readers just 8 years ago were six-row models (34.4%). Today, they are owned and used by only 23.3% of no-tillers.
The shift has gone to 16- and 24-row planters from 17.8% and 7.2% in 2010 to 26.4% and 12.8%, respectively.
20 Gypsum Use Levels Off. With 16% of No-Till Farmer readers having applied gypsum in 2017 vs. just 5% in 2008, the use of this soil amendment has seen significant growth overall.
However, gypsum usage grew to 18% in the 2011 production season and has since maintained a more level usage amongst no-tillers.