Global competitiveness in agriculture is growing. This becomes more obvious as government support declines. With declining price supports in the USA, producers will need to reduce input cost per unit of production like any other production industry. No-till crop production and the cropping flexibility, provided by the 1996 Farm Bill, will allow US producers to venture boldly into production systems that are more efficient and profitable. Many of these systems, based on no-till and crop rotation, have already been developed by our neighbors around the world. We can learn from them as they have learned from us.
Adoption of no-till
In ten years no-till has grown from 15 to 110 million acres. Some 58% of this adoption is outside the USA, with Canada, Brazil and Argentina leading the way. Argentina leads in the penetration of planted acres at 27.8% followed by Canada, the USA, and Brazil at 17.7%, 15.6%, and 15.4% respectively.
This revolution was started 25 years ago by dedicated farmers and researchers who were concerned about the fact that the world was losing 25 billion tons of soil per year in excess of new soil formation (1). This translated into a staggering average of 8 tons per cropland acre. In the early 1980s even the United States was loosing an average of 7.3 tons of soil per acre (2). Some 4 tons in excess of new soil formation. These pioneer farmers and researchers, with help from companies, were able to bring together the equipment, weed control, crop rotations, and economics necessary to fire the no-till explosion which began in the late 1980s. However, it is the favorable economics of no-till which has driven its adoption beyond these early pioneers. Production agriculture, like any other business, must keep driving towards efficiency. We are now, more than ever before, competing in a global market. Reducing input cost while increasing productivity and value on each acre is key to profitable participation in this market. No-till has provided the opportunity for many producers to reduce input cost and increase productivity per acre. In this paper we will highlight some examples.
Cutting input cost in soybean and corn
No-till in soybeans has reduced cost of production by $27.00 in Argentina compared to $14.18 in the USA. This reduction, combined with the low fertilizer input, and cheaper weed control has offset the much higher transport and storage costs in Argentina, making their production cost competitive with the USA (Fig 2).
Even though no-till reduces tillage cost by $31.14 / acre in Brazil, the expense of a winter cover crop and the increased cost of weed control (both needed for no-till) reduces savings from no-till to $11.50 / acre. This reduction in cost is not sufficient to bring Brazils production cost in line with the USA or Argentina. However, in both Argentina and Brazil soybean yields of 50 bushels / acre are achievable and further advances in yield can be expected as they improve soil quality with no-till and fertilizer. Additionally no-till allows farmers in Brazil to expand production acres by 33% without any additional investment in horse power. Development of a more efficient transport system and infrastructure could accelerate expansion of production to an additional 100 million acres of savanna in the Cerrados Region of Brazil with substantial reduction in production cost.
In corn, cost reductions of $21.96 / acre in Argentina and $13.31 / acre in Brazil from no-till are not enough for them to compete with the higher yields and lower cost of production in the USA. Because of more fertilizer use in corn, and higher harvesting cost, reductions in tillage cost of $27.51 and $29.74 / acre from no-till in Argentina and Brazil respectively are not enough to offset the high transport costs compared to the USA (Fig 3).
Both countries have a way to go before becoming competitive in corn production, however advances in soil quality, fertilizer use, and hybrids is closing the gap.
Replacing Fallow with Continuous Cropping Systems and No-till
Productivity is more than just yield. Increasing costs and declining government support for agriculture have forced Canadian and Australian farmers and researchers to look aggressively at replacing fallow with continuous cropping systems. Conserving moisture with no-till and controlling disease with crop rotations has made it possible to replace or reduce fallow in the rotation with substantial economic benefit in the dark and dark brown soil zones of Western Canada. This was clearly illustrated in work at Scott, Saskatchewan (Fig. 4) (5).
At Minto, Manitoba, no-till reduced input cost and increased profit compared to conventional tillage for both continuous cereals, and continuous cereal/oilseed/pulse rotations (Fig 5) (6).
No-till and a rotation of pulses and oilseeds with 50% cereals was the most profitable.
In the drier brown soil areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta, oilseeds and pulse crops may not be as well adapted, and continuous cropping more risky. However, some preliminary results indicate that mustard, flax, pea, and lentils may compete with cereals under drier conditions. This may be an opportunity to replace at least some of the fallow when moisture conditions are right (5). Farmers in these areas are trying alternate crops combined with no-till.
Declining price supports associated with freedom to farm will make it necessary for farmers in the Western Plain States and the Pacific North West of the USA to adopt more efficient production systems if they are to compete with their international neighbors. Farmers in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, and North and South Dakota are discovering that the additional moisture available in no-till often allows more frequent cropping and less fallow with significant increase in net return/acre.
Using No-till to increase the number of crops per year
One of the most exciting recent developments has been the response of rice to no-till in Southeast Asia. The benefits have been astounding. Small holder farmers in Indonesia are realizing 25% savings in labor, 65% savings in land preparation cost, 28% savings in irrigation water per cropping cycle and 2 to 3 weeks time saving for land preparation (7). Collectively this has resulted in savings of $24.21 / acre per cropping cycle (Fig 6).
Source : University of Lampung, Indonesia and Monsanto, India.
These reductions in input cost are significant, however the major benefit from no-till is the potential it brings to increase the number of cropping cycles per year in tropical areas. The small farmers (average 2 acres) in Indonesia prepare the seedbed by hand or rent equipment to plow and as availability is limited they often have to wait, sometimes missing a cropping cycle. Again no-till will eliminate this problem and this together with 2 to 3 weeks real savings in time to prepare the land for planting will help move production from the current average of 1.37 crops per year towards a realizable potential of three crops per year. Similar results are being observed in the Philippines, Thailand and India. These developments will make a major contribution towards helping governments in the Asian region meet their self sufficiency goals with more efficient use of human resources and water. This will be important in the region as rapid industrial development will or is already competing for labor and water. These increases in productivity have the potential to reduce the need for US rice exports.
The Remaining Challenge
In spite of rapid no-till growth only about 7% (170 million) of world wide acres (2,500 million) under corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice and crops in rotation with these crops will be under no-till in the year 2000. Many non-adopters claim that no-till is only possible on well drained structurally active soils were yields are similar or superior to conventional tillage. However, many farmers around the world have overcome the challenges of no-till on the more difficult soils which are poorly drained or have a tendency to crust, set and compact. For example, on the fragile subtropical soils of Brazil, five to six tons of residue or crop cover all year round is essential for the control of erosion and for crop germination. Winter cover crops such as black oats and winter legumes or a late summer second crop such as sorghum or pearl millet have secured the germination of spring planted crops such as soybeans and maize by providing adequate residue cover in the spring to protect the soil from the crusting impact of heavy rain. Soil compaction can be a severe limiting factor on soils high in low-activity clays. In areas with reasonable rainfall, such as Maringa, Brazil, a deep rooted winter cover crop such as black oats has made no-till soybeans and maize possible on these soils.
In the U.S. cool wet springs have impacted germination and growth of no-till corn on poorly drained soils. The surface residue keeps the soil cool longer. Many farmers continue to no-till soybeans but have returned to tillage for corn. However, other persistent farmers have found a solution to this problem. They strip till and apply fertilizer in the fall and plant the corn into these narrow strips in the spring. The soil in these narrow strips warms up faster in the spring ensuring even germination and growth.
Producers are also concerned about disease and weed management in no-till and this has been a major barrier to adoption in traditional wheat monoculture. However, as we have seen in Canada, Australia, and the USA there are profitable rotations with wheat, which not only make no-till possible, but also allow for profitable replacement of fallow because of no-till. The 1996 Farm Bill now allows freedom of crop choice. With declining price supports this may be the only profitable choice.
Conservation tillage offers tremendous potential for sustained and profitable agriculture. Like any other industry, agriculture must drive to increased production efficiency. Around the world we have seen dramatic examples of how no-till has reduced input cost and increased productivity and value per acre. Soybeans production in Argentina has become more competitive with the USA due to rapid adoption of no-till. Brazil has the opportunity to open up more acres in the Cerrados region and to spread their capitol cost over these additional acres. Many producers in Canada and Australia have increased profit per acre by replacing fallow with continuous cropping systems. No-till has conserved the necessary moisture to make this possible. With cropping flexibility, made possible by freedom to farm, this opportunity is gaining ground in the Western Plain States of the USA. Even in the small holder rice systems of South East Asia, no-till has the potential to dramatically increase production and profitability in spite of declining water and labor resources brought on by rapid industrial development. Increased cropping cycles per year and more efficient use of labor and water are made possible by no-till rice production.
No-till is a sustainable system of crop production. It increases productivity and value without compromising the ability of future generations to meet productivity needs. Conservation tillage has reduced soil erosion in the USA from 7.3 tons / acre /year in 1982 to 5.0 tons / acre / year in 1995 (2). We have also seen dramatic improvements in soil quality around the world. For example soil quality in the acid savanna soils of Brazil has been improved beyond the virgin state with lime and high residue no-till systems. Organic matter in the USA has been shown to increase, on average (10 long term no-till studies), by 0.1% /year in no-till (9). Soil quality is also the fundamental first step to environmental quality. Good quality soil, high in organic matter, increases water infiltration and reduces runoff containing pollutants such as sediment, nutrients and pesticides (10, 11,12,13,14,15).
Brown, L.R. and Wolf, E.C. 1984. Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis In the World Economy. Worldwatch Paper 60.
National Resources Inventory, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA.
Conservation Technology Information Center, 1994. National Crop Residue Management Survey.
Asociación Argentina de Productores en Siembra Directa, June 1997.
S.A. Brandt et al., Sustainable Crop Rotations. 1996. Proceedings of the 1996 AgriFUTURE Farm Technology Expo and Conservation Workshop, Red Deer, Alberta. Feb., 1996.
Manitoba / North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association. 1997. Zero Tillage - Advancing the Art.
Ardjasa, W.S. et al. 1994. Effects of No-tillage with Polaris Herbicide on Irrigated Lowland Rice Production. Internal communication from the University of Lampung, Indonesia.
Analysis of Maxâ data from CTIC and Successful Farming Magazine.
Reicosky, R.C. et al., 1995. Soil Organic Matter Changes Resulting from Tillage and Biomass Production. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, May-June 1995.
Baker. J.L. et al. 1978. Effect of Tillage Systems on Runoff Losses of pesticides, a Rainfall Simulation Study. Trans., ASAE 25:340-343.
Baker J.L. and Johnson H.P. 1979. The Effect of Tillage System on Pesticides in Runoff From Small Watersheds. Trans., ASAE 22 : 554-559.
Baker, J.L. and Laflen, J.M. 1979. Runoff Losses of Surface-Applied Herbicides as Affected by Wheel Tracks and Incorporation. J. Environ. Quality. 8:602-607.
Glen, S and Angle J.S. 1987. Atrazine and Simazine in Runoff from Conventional and No-till Watersheds. Agric. Ecosystems and Environ. 18 : 273 - 280.
Sander, K.W., Witt W.W. and Barrett, M. 1989. Movement of Triazine Herbicides in Conventional and Conservation Tillage Systems. In Weigmann D.L. (ed.) Pesticides in Terrestrial and Aquatic Environments. VA Water Resources Res. Center and VA Polytechnic Inst. And State Univ., Blackburg. Pp 378-382.
Hall, J.K., Hartwig N.L., and Hoffman L.D. 1984. Cyanazine Losses in Runoff From No-tillage Corn in "Living" and Dead Mulches vs Unmulched, Conventional Tillage. J. Environ. Qual. 13 : 105 - 110.
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