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PNW CONSERVATION TILLAGE HANDBOOK SERIES
Chapter 10 - Economics and Application, No. 2, December-January 1986


Perceptions of No-till in the Palouse

Roger Veseth

In the heart of the Palouse region in Washington, Whitman County has about 16,000 acres of no-till seeded cropland. Neighboring Latah County, across the border in northern Idaho, has about 10,000 acres. No-till originated largely from farmer innovation in the Palouse. Morton Swanson, who farms near Palouse, WA, built one of the first no-till drills in the area and began using it in 1974, Since that time, development of no-till equipment and management technology has been greatly accelerated by public and private research, as well as progressive farmers. Currently, over 14 commercial no-till drills and one-pass reduced tillage drills are available in the Northwest. Part of this new technology has been developed through STEEP, the conservation farming research program in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, now in its 1l th year.

What factors influence farmer decisions to use conservation farming systems such as no-till? To help determine Palouse farmer perceptions of no-till, an extensive survey was conducted between November 1984 and April 1985. The survey was coordinated by rural sociologists and STEEP researchers John Carlson, University of Idaho, and Don Dillman, Washington State University. It was supported by a USDA-SCS grant, STEEP research funds and the two universities.

Detailed interviews, usually lasting about 3 hours, were conducted with 174 of the 187 farmers who had used no-till sometime during the past 11 years. They were asked a series of questions about their experiences with no-till. Interviews were also conducted with 114 of 140 randomly selected farmers who had not used no-till. Questions were asked from a perspective of how they perceived no-till based on what they had read, seen or heard about the system. This article briefly highlights some of the survey results.

Economic Impacts of No-Till

The effect of no-till on income per acre compared to conventional tillage reflected a difference in perception between no-till users and nonusers. Of the no-till users, 22 percent said income was higher than with conventional tillage, 33 percent said it was the same and 44 percent said lower. Nonusers were less optimistic about the effect of no-till on income; 4 percent estimated increased income, 19 percent the same and 69 percent lower.

Although no-till users said that the yield on 59 percent of their no-till fields was the same or higher than conventional tillage, 80 percent of the fields were rated as successful. This appears to indicate that no-till users maybe willing to accept lower yields during their early trial period as they perfect the system. Winter wheat was the most common no-till seeded crop (64 percent) with more than six other crops also listed. Lentils, spring barley, peas and winter wheat were the four most common previous crops.

Production inputs most commonly listed as being reduced with no-till were fuel, farm labor and time in the field. Over 70 percent of both users and nonusers felt no-till reduced these inputs. Because herbicides largely replace tillage operations for weed control in no-till, 70 percent of the no-till users reported an increase in herbicides. About 87 percent of the nonusers estimated a herbicide increase. Only 36 percent of no-till users reported an increased fertilizer input while 54 percent of nonusers estimated a fertilizer increase.

Future of No-till

There is a trend toward increased use of no-till in the Palouse. In the two county areas, approximately 3 percent of the farmers had tried no-till by 1976, 10 percent by 1978 and 24 percent by 1985. This survey found that 63 percent of the farmers who had tried no-till during the past 11 years planned to use it in the future and 19 percent were undecided. Of the nonusers, 38 percent planned to use it and 40 percent were undecided.

Over the next 10 years, 77 percent of the no-till users and 70 percent of the nonusers perceived an increased use of no-till in the Palouse. The most common reasons given for the future increase were erosion control, reduced labor/time and reduced costs. Those undecided about the future use (19 percent of no-till users and 40 percent of nonusers) gave cost of equipment and weed control as their most common reason for being undecided.

Implications

The researchers concluded that no-till does not appear to be a temporary innovation that will disappear when the novelty wears off. No-till farming is a system that farmers are taking seriously and attempting to integrate effectively into their farming operation on a long-term basis.

Although no-till is effective in reducing soil erosion, it was not selected solely on that basis. Attitudes about soil conservation did not separate users from nonusers in the survey. Early users of no-till in the Palouse reported using it more for the economic advantages than from a conservation ethic alone. No-till is seen as a way of farming more land more effectively.

The survey indicates that the success of no-till increases with each additional year of experience by no-till users. The first year, 56 percent of the no-till users reported it is successful, 68 percent the second year and 94 percent by the fifth year. Successful no-till depends on the farmer's ability to integrate the many production components into a management system. Conventional farming in the Palouse is still evolving after more than a century. No-till is in the early development and adoption stage. It takes time, but it's coming.

     
 

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