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Seed Cropping Systems in North Central Montana
--Evolution of No-Till on Our Farm--
Steve Keil, Conrad, Montana
Conservation farming was something I took for granted when growing up on a dryland farm in north central Montana in the 1950's. My father was one of the pioneers in the field of stubble-mulch practices in the late 30,s. I did not know any other way of farming practice.
About 1936 my father and another local "visionary" heard about a new innovation developed near Lethbridge Alberta by a man named Noble. This tool known as the Noble Blade left most residues on the surface of the soil thereby reducing wind and water erosion. This new idea was scoffed at by all of this stubborn German who was more determined by each laugh at "dirty fallow." Most neighbors used the clean method of farming using discs, one-ways, or sometimes burning to achieve a clean field.
Dad stood by his principals and refined his practices through trial and observation of believers in other areas. By the late 40's and early 50's he had heard about and tried strings of rod weeders to further the concept. This method of farming allowed him to be more efficient and yet not have severe wind erosion than those that used strip farming Methods.
This early respect for the land led us to a natural progression into a zero till regime. When my brother Dan, received his M.S. in soil from Montana State University in 1964 he did some experiments with fertilizer placement on our farm. These trial led us to ask the key "why" that made us look at what would happen if we had more soil moisture. About the same time he open a retail fertilizer and chemical outlet in Conrad. Dan was a follower of Montana's Harold Houlton and Alberta's John Harapiak. These men were leaders in "deep banding" of fertilizer research; Dan took it to a commercial and practical level in Mt.
Over the next decade many different tools were tried on our farm to capitalize on both my fathers and Dan's concepts. With cooperation from some chemical companies a new concept being developed in Nebraska was tried. This was the use of Triazine for chem-fallow. What a wreck. Our soils were too alkaline and the weed spectrum was different. Next came a Karmax -Velpar mixture that was worse. Keep in mind this all happened before E.P.A. so all was legal at the time. Next we used Paraquat, that worked better but had problems with regrowth. Then Monsanto was attempting to label Roundup. Some first Emergency Use Permit plots were on our farm. This looked like it might be the answer for weed control.
Now that there might be a chemical to control all weeds the next obstacle to overcome was mechanical. The first attempt at no-till was a broadcast of fertilizer and seeding with Noble drills. These drills pulled like a ship anchor and the fertilization method was not practical. During the last years of limited tillage with Noble Blades we found that any successful program MUST begin at harvest. We had our own combines at the time and found that an addition called "Straw Storm" for straw and chaff distribution worked best of most commercial aftermarket products. In later years we utilized custom combiners and have had limited success in getting adequate distribution.
To get a desired spread of straw and chaff we have used a heavy harrow and abandoned this practice of all but the heaviest of irrigated residue. The reason for quitting harrowing was all it did was spread weeds and kill habitat for a parasite of the dreaded wheat stem sawfly. Any perceived benefits were more than offset by not doing the practice.
After trying to make existing regular tillage equipment work as no-till we made our first venture into a true zero till one pass seeding project. After observing Mort Swanson's Pioneer drill at work in the Palouse, his son Guy made arrangements for a drill to come in from North Dakota in 1981 to do a 500 acre trial. The results from this experiment were good enough that in 1982 we leased a unit to do about 1/2 our crop. The results were as good as the previous year, so in 1983 we purchased a 2020 model followed by a 2520 the next year and a 500 year drought in 1985. These units worked well in moist conditions but when it was dry they moved too much soil and had poor seed to soil packing especially in our soil types. The paired row fertilizing concept was something that we felt was valuable in a low rainfall area.
One more service that was provided by Swanson and associate Greg Schmick was practical research on soil properties after zero disturbance under the surface. This research using drip tube on simulated vertical soil structures was dramatic as to percolation and puddeling of water. After a few years of straight no-till our organic matter raised from a low of 1/2 per cent to near 2 1/2. This also helped water percolation; thus we use zero till on the irrigated portion of our farm.
The Yielder experience was a learning period but the narrow drill and high speed resulted in late seeding and unacceptable maintenance costs. We then had to revert to limited tillage because of still high Roundup cost and a lack of crop protection products for alternative crops.
After getting our weed pressure, mainly foxtail barley, under control industry had made great strides in air drills. We purchased a Flexi coil model 5000 in 1992 and have been mostly satisfied since. The first year of trying to put down all fertilizer in a paired row banded scheme was very time consuming so after one fall season we adapted a second tank as a pull through cart and increased the amount of acres between fillings three fold.
The next step in pursuit of the right machinery led us to the Flexi coil 6000 with a Barton double shoot disc opener. This unit would work well under some conditions, but the maintenance problems are only somewhat less than the Yielder.
Is there a perfect drill or a perfect opener? No. You have to take time to analyze what is necessary to make zero till work for you. Make sure that you seek out the real reason for wrecks that you will have and look at what benefits that you receive by changing to no-till. I believe that benefits from decreased wind erosion, better water percolation in my area and less water erosion in higher rainfall areas, and decreased weed pressure are just a few of the many plusses that will be seen by continued zero-till.