Our farm is located approximately two miles west of Dayton Washington. The farm size being 2500 acres. Annual precipitation is 18 inches with slopes of varying intensity from flat to 40%. The predominant soil depth is from 2-6 feet.
In 1992 we purchased a 1615L Yielder Drill. Prior to owning the drill we were in a two-year wheat fallow or wheat pea rotation, which would be fairly typical for the region. Summer fallow was disced or plowed, then cultivated and rodweeded prior to seeding.
Pea crops were planted using numerous tillage passes prior to seeding, those being fall plow, spring cultivate three times, seed, harrow, and pack.
At this point we feel the need to give you some background as to why we employ this practice and why we think it is not only the system of choice but one which will continue to grow and become the dominant system. Our initial interest in no-till farming started from an observation that crop inputs, seed, fertilizer, diesel, and machinery were all escalating and were not likely to experience cost reduction, and at the same time, commodity prices were not following the same trend. If anything, they were going the other way, getting cheaper. Obviously this is a situation which profitability and survival cannot be maintained. With this in mind we undertook the challenge of no-till to decrease operation costs.
Initially we planted only wheat after peas because the common mindset was -- that was the only no-till that worked. As time went on we asked about growing spring wheat or barley and were told that it wouldn't work, "the ground was too cold" because you weren't tilling and warming it up.
At this time, a University scientist isolated the phenomenon that Rhizoctonia root rot populations exploded after spraying Roundup to burn down weeds before planting and that one should wait 3 to 4 weeks after spraying to seed wheat or barley. We took his advice and low and behold, we could raise no-till spring cereals. In fact they yielded better than conventional seeded crops. It wasn't the "cold soil" it was Rhizoctonia root rot!
With wheat on pea ground and spring cereals now a viable no-till crop we turned our attention to peas. I asked a prominent pea grower about the possibility of growing peas under no-till and he said it was impossible. Peas like warm soil and a loose seedbed. So we went back to 8 or 9 tillage trips to prepare our soil for peas we observed that in reality, we were only tilling 5 to 7 inches deep, and planting peas 3 inches deep. Could 2 to 3 inches of tilled soil make that much difference? We then took a soil thermometer and tested (crudely) tilled ground versus non-tilled ground at 1.5 to 2 inches, no difference, at 3 to 4 inches the non-tilled soil was 2 to 3 degrees colder. So we tried no-till peas on a small-scale basis, they were a disaster! The next year, another disaster. What we finally realized was that we were planting peas deep like we would under tillage systems and that we had to plant them shallow to take advantage of warmer soil temperatures closer to the surface. When we did that, the problems disappeared and the peas performed great!
At this point we are not as enamored with no-till because of its cost savings (it does achieve this) but more for what it is doing for our soil. When we started moving away from tillage, our organic matter was 1.2 to 1.5. Now the soil tests show an O.M. level of 2.0 to 2.3. Soil tests for O.M. are not the most reliable and I question whether the levels have doubled, but I do think this reveals a trend. With tillage, it is virtually impossible to raise organic matter because the mechanical stirring of the soil introduces oxygen, which oxidizes organic matter. Organic matter is very important and must be maintained and increased if possible. In addition we have substantially reduced our erosion and eliminated strip farming at the same time. The elimination of strips under no-till is a cost cutting measure and is possible under no-till. In a business, which has a slim profit margin, it makes little sense to incur 20% to 30% more cost because of strips. Soil porosity and texture are also improving as well as earthworm populations. These are all very good things which are possible under no-till and not possible with tillage. We cannot afford to let our most valuable resource, the soil, erode.
There are some down sides to no-till; the biggest is the need to fertilize more. With tillage, the introduction of oxygen oxidizes organic matter and causes this to be available to plants as fertilizer. With no-till, the organic matter is being increased and therefor robs nitrogen from the plants to help build better soil. The net result of this is the need to increase fertilizer rates to compensate. To me this is a good trade and in the long term will pay off handsomely.
The other problem is that presently we use fire as a management tool to reduce residue so that the no-till drill can work effectively. I do not think that will be a viable option much longer. Taking a proactive stance, we have taken a 100-acre plot of ground and farmed it without the use of tillage or fire for several years now with excellent success. Yields have improved and weeds have diminished. We are excited. I feel our years of experience with no-till to be a real plus.
Rotation is a very integral part of a no-till system. Rotation cleanses the soil of pathogens, allows us the use of different herbicide chemicals to control weeds and spreads risk. By rotating different crops such as wheat, barley and peas the pathogens specific to each crop have a host for only one year in three, consequently, they can not survive the other two years without a food source and a natural "fumigation" of the soil occurs. Rotation also makes the crop uniform, which translates into more efficient harvesting, a cleaner sample, and less dockage.
Annual weeds are controlled more effectively because crop care chemistry in a diverse rotation is more effective. An example would be when rotating from a grass to a legume. Grasses can be effectively controlled in the legume crop (i.e. peas) and broadleaf in the grass crop (wheat).
Lastly, risk is spread somewhat when you have 3 crops to market instead of one. Risk in the form of prices can be lowered because of the multitude of crops. Weather risk is also spread. What is bad for a winter crop such as winter kill will not affect a spring crop and what is bad for a spring crop, late season, heat or extremely wet and cold springs will not affect a winter crop.
There are additional benefits of direct seeding which were welcome but not expected. Higher water infiltration rates mean less soil erosion and the ability to "get on" fields quicker in the spring.
Our equipment includes a Yielder 1615L drill with anhydrous ammonia and dry fertilizer capability. It utilizes a double disk opener for the fertilizer and seed. The advantages of this drill are operating cost and overall toughness. The disadvantage being the inability to seed into very high residue loads.
The drill used for seeding into heavy residue without burning is the Cross Slot. The feel this machine does an excellent job in high residue. In the future we hope to use a tool which will enable us to seed without modifying the residue in any manor.
No-till is rewarding satisfying and we would recommend it to anyone.