No-Till Farmer received word recently that Jim McCutcheon, a pioneer for zero-till practices in Manitoba and western Canada, passed away on Feb. 12 in Carman, Manitoba. He was 79 years old.

McCutcheon began zero-tilling his farm near Homewood, Manitoba, in 1973 and he was one of the first farmers in western Canada to zero-till his entire farm. He was inducted into the Manitoba Agricultural Hall of Fame in 2002.

McCutcheon was a founder and past president of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, and his name was well known in the northern Great Plains. In 2011, No-Till Farmer editor Frank Lessiter named McCutcheon as one of the 40 most influential no-till pioneers.

“The neat thing about Jim was the fact that he made no-till work with just some simple and low-cost modifications to existing equipment,” Frank told me. “He never had fancy equipment or a big acreage, but he certainly made no-till work.”

Veteran zero-tiller Bob McNabb from Minnedosa, Manitoba, eulogized McCutcheon at his funeral Feb. 16, noting his passion for soil conservation that inspired many in agriculture, and directly led to the formation of the MANDAK in January 1980 in Minot, N.D.

The organization continues to this day, “and Jim will forever be known as the Godfather of zero-till,” McNabb said. “Jim always had a fundamental respect for the soil, and the basic idea that soil is a finite resource that needs to be conserved and protected.

“To him, managing the soil was like borrowing money from a bank — you borrow nutrients in the soil to grow food and are then obligated to put the same amount back in.”

Jim McCutcheon
Jim McCutcheon

In a article appearing on the Soil Conservation Council of Canada’s website, McCutcheon first started using zero-till on the recommendation of a professor at the University of Manitoba as a way to manage wild oats on his farm. He kept finding new efficiencies due to the management change.

“I quickly found that zero-till reduced my fuel costs, and the amount of time I had to dedicate to driving the tractor,” McCutcheon said. “It saved me both time and money.”

Also, after conducting a number of tests, McCutcheon quickly saw the potential benefits of zero-till from a soil perspective. “It became clear to me that it would be the best way to preserve topsoil, short of converting all my cropped acres back to permanent grass,” he said.

He zero-till efforts evolved from trial-and-error using a double-disc drill to switching to a hoe drill, and then designing a modified version of an opener developed in New Zealand for direct seeding into pasture. He would also abandon his method of banding nitrogen (N) with his seed drill in the fall with a one-pass side-banding application of N.

McCutcheon once reflected how quickly zero-till caught on in western Canada, even as stakeholders in the position to advance the practice failed to do so through research and technology development. It was up to the farmers themselves to research and innovate.

“When you think about it, for the farming community to go from almost all tillage to very little over the space of 30 years is pretty amazing,” McCutcheon said. “It’s quite a revolution.”

Unfortunately, in the time I’ve been with No-Till Farmer I never had the good fortune to meet Jim McCutcheon. But it’s clear to me that zero-till practices wouldn’t be where they are today in western Canada without his tireless efforts.