Regardless of a farmer’s chosen tillage methods, he’s likely felt the pain and frustration of a slow, tedious harvest. However, for producers who have chosen no-till, their challenges might be a bit less painful.
Don Reicosky, USDA Agricultural Research Service soil scientist in Morris, Minn., says in times of heavy rain, no-tillers can sometimes pull into their fields 2 to 3 days earlier than their conventional-tillage counterparts.
“Partly because of residue, and partly because of the soil’s structural changes resulting from no-till methods, no-tilled soil supports traffic and the weight of a tractor a bit better in wet seasons,” Reicosky says. “It depends on the rainfall and your location, but here in Minnesota, a farmer can pick up 2 to 3 days, in terms of getting into the field.”
Steve Berger of Wellman, Iowa, has been continuously no-tilling his 2,200-acre corn-and-soybean operation for 30 years. He began using no-till to prevent erosion on his highly erodible land in Washington County.
“Our goal was to improve our No. 1 resource, behind our people — our soil,” Berger says. “We are very lucky to live in Iowa, and to have deep, rich soils. We wanted to build the quality of our soil and at least stabilize the loss of organic matter.”
However, Berger says, the ability to pull into his field before his conventional-tillage counterparts is a strong bonus.
“They’ll run a few days behind after a rain,” he says. “When you have a plow layer, there’s not much structure. There’s a foot of muck. But, when you’ve been no-tilling for several years, you build the soil structure up. And, in tight situations, if you have a half-day, day or day and a half, that makes a difference. When you have the opportunity, you’d better go.”
Although farmers can see advantages to getting into wet fields for harvest, a few challenges also arise with no-till in the spring.
Reicosky says, in some cases — especially in soils with a high clay content — no-till residue adds a few days to the start of planting, as the residue can delay the soil warming and drying to desired levels.
“You can get into conventional-tilled fields a little earlier,” he says. “Once your soil has been into the no-till system, you can see a delay of 3 to 5 days. And, of course, we’ve been taught that the earlier you get your crop in, the better the potential yields.”
However, Berger says, in his part of the country, no-tillers are the exception to the rule. Often, they are in the fields for planting before those using conventional tillage.
“I hear and read all the time that no-till planting is delayed to let the soil warm up,” Berger says. “That’s not right for us. The three or four farmers running no-till in our area are out first. The reason is, we’re planting into a dry surface. When you’re tilling, you’re bringing that muck or mud up, and that’s when the tillage guys are working the ground too wet.”
Regardless, Reicosky says, he believes the benefits of no-till far outweigh any challenges.
“No-till gives us clean air and allows us to produce economical yields,” he says. “We also can decrease fossil fuel usage and trips across fields, and that gives us a potential advantage.”
In many conventional-tillage systems, anhydrous ammonia is applied in the fall after harvest to restore some nitrogen lost throughout the growing season. This year, however, there may not be time. And, for the environment’s sake, that may be best.
“When you don’t apply anhydrous in fall, there’s not that potential opportunity for leaching from the bottom of the soil profile,” Reicosky says. “The odds are small, but if we get a major rainfall, it’s catastrophic, and farmers could lose nitrogen.”
Not only could farmers lose the nitrogen applied to their fields, that nitrogen can enter nearby waterways, creating water-quality issues and adding to already established hypoxic zones, he adds.
Another potential problem with applying anhydrous in a wet fall: heavy, silty clay soils will not crumble and reseal the slot though which nitrogen is applied, Reicosky says.
“Unless a farmer takes the precautions to cover that gap with another tillage tool, he runs the risk of losing some of that nitrogen,” he says.
And, as the season progresses, frozen soil becomes an obstacle in applying fall anhydrous.
“Once they get 1 to 4 inches of frozen soil, they’re done,” Reicosky says.
Dan Towery, owner of Ag Conservation Solutions in Lafayette, Ind., advises farmers to apply nitrogen before spring planting only if conditions allow in March or early April.
“Farmers should keep one eye on the calendar and one eye on the soil moisture,” he says. “If it’s after April 10, it’s corn planting time. Plant corn, and don’t put anhydrous on.”
Instead, Towery says, apply nitrogen at 50 units with the planter and later as a sidedress. Sometimes, in extremely wet springs, applying nitrogen as a sidedress before the corn gets too tall can be a problem. But, he says, it can be done.
“I know farmers who plant thousands of acres, and they make it a priority,” Towery says. “They get it done.”
Towery says, regardless of tillage methods, farmers should evaluate methods to reduce compaction during wet seasons.
“Eighty percent of compaction is caused by the first trip through the field,” Towery says. “The trick is to minimize it.”
Towery advises farmers during harvest to run grain carts in the combine’s tracks, and when harvesting on the go, only running from the halfway point of the field to the end.
In addition, he says, using a ripper on wet soils is not advised.
“I question if the soil is dry enough,” Towery says. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Ripping should shatter the ground. If it’s wet, it’s just smearing. Farmers may see a bit more filtration this fall, but it will seal over by spring.”
For conventional farmers, there’s no turning back for 2009. However, in the future, if a producer is considering a switch to no-till, Berger says, patience is key.
“You have to remember, the soil took 4 to 5 million years to make,” Berger says. “Soil moves very slowly, and farmers can change by the minute. You must be patient. It takes a few years to get soils into shape. It’s like a losing team getting a new coach. They don’t win the first year. But, once they get the new system into place, it works pretty well.”
Without a doubt, the patience of farmers across the country has been tested. But, for those who have chosen no-till, the burden quite possibly was lighter. And, in a world of uncertainties, the less burden, the better.