“Wheat Yields Improve with No-Till.” That was the banner headline that came to my inbox today. It seems that a study released this summer by the Washington State Department of Agriculture showed that over 72% of dry-land wheat producers in that state were growing their crops using no-till or minimum-till farming practices and of those producers, nearly half were seeing yield increases while also seeing reductions in equipment costs, labor costs and in some cases, fertilizer costs. The study went on to say that no-tillers in Washington were seeing increases in soil moisture retention and reductions in run-off and erosion (especially among those no-tillers who also utilized cover crops).
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Higher yields, lower costs, more sub-soil moisture, and less erosion. This ought to be something more farmers look at possibly adopting, right?
Well, that leads to the next headline that I saw—“No-Till, Cover Crop Adoption Lags in U.S." This article stated that USDA Economic Research Service is reporting that just 34.6% of U.S. cropland is farmed using no-till practices and that less than 3% is cover cropped.
So what gives? If you can realize higher yields, reduce costs, hold on to more moisture and lose less soil, why are the adoption rate on practices like no-till and cover crops so low?
First and foremost, it’s important to remember that everyone has a different reality, whether financial, geographical, or cultural. No one size fits all, and there can be numerous reasons why a producer might be hesitant to make major changes in their operation. After all, converting to something like no-till isn’t cheap. The price of a new, good-sized mechanical no-till drill can run well over $100 thousand. Air seeders cost even more. Factor in the cost of a sprayer and you start to see that making the switch from conventional till to no-till can be pricey.
Peer pressure can also be a factor in people’s minds. Want to get the local coffee shop crowd talking? Switch to no-till and plant covers in the summer after winter wheat. Everyone will want to know what you’re doing and will be happy to share their opinion about how covers will suck up all the sub-soil moisture and cause more weeds in your next wheat crop. They will make sure you know that you must establish a good seedbed for your crop and that you have to ‘open the ground up to take in a rain.’ Don’t you know that kind of farming might work somewhere else, but it won’t here?
All of this, combined with an aging population of producers who by necessity, have to be conservative in their business dealings (U.S. Farmers and Ranchers have an average age of around 58) can create some strong headwinds that hold back many from adopting climate-smart agriculture practices.
The good news is that there is help in overcoming these barriers. USDA is investing record dollars in programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to help with the financial challenges of adopting practices like no-till. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is also working with its partners (including the Climate Hub Network) to help spread the word on the benefits that soil-health and climate-smart farming techniques can bring to producers. In some states like Oklahoma, this also includes state and local partners establishing mentoring and support networks to help answer questions and provide ‘moral support’ when the coffee shop crowd gets a new no-till adopter down.
Change is never easy, even when you can see the chance for something better. USDA is helping to make that change a little easier.