Some 35 years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture staffers predicted we’d see more than half of all U.S. cropland being no-tilled by now. The 1975 report also indicated that by 2010, 41% of the ground would be minimum tilled and only 5% conventionally tilled.
As you can tell, those optimistic predictions didn’t take place.
Glover Triplett argues that the 1975 projection was overly optimistic.
“The adoption of hybrid corn — from its introduction until 95% of the corn was grown this way — took 30 years,” says the former Ohio State university agronomist. “Today, no one questions the value of improved germplasm, and this only involved changing the source of the seed.
“Adopting no-till is much more complicated.”
Triplett says big differences in soil characteristics and crop response held back no-till acceptance.
Another limiting factor may have been resistance to change. If intensive tillage was good enough for a grower’s father or grandfather, they didn’t see any need to switch to less tillage.
Ernest Flit, an area agronomist with Mississippi State University, believes a lack of appreciation for the need to conserve soil held back no-till adoption. Even today, there’s pressure from lending officers and absentee landowners to use excessive tillage.
Dick Wittman, a veteran no-tiller from Culdesac, Idaho, maintains social and cultural barriers had more to do with the lack of no-till acceptance than economic or environmental factors.
Still another factor is the increased cost of no-till planters and drills, and not knowing what to do with expensive conventional-tillage tools.
Others feel some early-day no-till experiences may have held back acceptance. As an example, once growers realized they could no-till without coulters, no-till seemed to take off, says Ed Winkle. But early on, most manufacturers simply hung coulters on existing planters and called them no-till rigs, says the Martinsville, Ohio, crop consultant.
Joe Nester says equipment companies kept selling the philosophy that intensive tillage is good. As the Bryan, Ohio, crop consultant points out, machinery manufacturers didn’t fully understand how the physical and biological properties of the soil improve with no-till.
But Norm Widman maintains there’s been more progress since 1975 than we may think. The national agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service says minimum tillage is much more defined today.
“Based on the 1975 definition of minimum tillage, we’ve probably far exceeded the goal,” Widman says.
Another obstacle has been the increasing amount of crop residue due to higher yields, leading some no-tillers to size and lightly incorporate residue to allow earlier planting and more uniform crop emergence.
“No-till works, but it takes management and adaptive techniques to make it work in different climates, soil and cropping systems,” Widman says.
Despite the fact that no-till adoption has been slower than the very optimistic prediction from 35 years ago, no-till acceptance has definitely caught on and will certainly pay a key role in making American agriculture more efficient in the years ahead.