No-till update

TO GET THE BENEFITS, THERE’S NO GOING BACK

HAVE YOU JOINED the growing  number of farmers across Ontario who no-till all of their crops? “As you’ve likely heard before, no-till farmers realize greater benefits compared to those who till in terms of reduced labour and fuel costs, and in reduced soil erosion,” says Adam Hayes, Soil Management Specialist for Field Crops at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and Ministry of Rural Affairs, based at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. “Tillage equipment has been moving topsoil off of knolls for decades – and on many farms, totally removing it. This, combined with water erosion, has cost Ontario producers millions of dollars in lost yield.”

PHOTO: STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THAT EARTHWORM POPULATIONS AND OTHER SOIL LIFE ARE SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER IN NO-TILL FIELDS.

Improved drainage is also seen by many long-term no-tillers on clay and clay loam soils, and Hayes says soil organism activity is greatly improved as well. Studies have shown that earthworm populations and other soil life are significantly higher in no-till fields. Certain fungi, important in improving nutrient uptake in many plant species, flourish when the soil is left undisturbed.

Long-term tillage and rotation plots at Ridgetown have also shown increases in soil organic carbon with no-till compared to conventional tillage, which means improved nutrient cycling, increased water-holding capacity, improved soil structure (less soil crusting), and resistance to soil erosion. “And no-till yields in long-term plots are also as good as, or better than, the conventional tillage yields,” Hayes notes. “It’s time for everyone to give continuous no-till a serious look.”

FIRM COMMITMENT
It requires a long-term commitment to see the best results – a commitment that has already been made by Ryan Marshall, owner of J & R Marshall Farms in Milton, Ontario. Marshall, Hayes, Henry Denotter of Kingsville, and Gord Green of Embro gave a joint presentation on no-till at the Southwest Agricultural Conference in early January.

“It is essential to commit to it, with no going back,” Marshall asserts. “Many growers no-till for a couple of years followed by tillage, and this practice erases the positive soil ecology changes that were just getting started. With our continuous no-till, we have been able to profit from a growing list of benefits as the soil gets set up by the ecology. Rotating tillage into a no-till system is like pressing a reset button back to the beginning.”

Marshall’s father, Jim, started continuous no-till on the farm over 20 years ago. “We’re still outliers, but we’re fine with that,” Marshall says. “We used to talk about the benefits to other farmers quite a bit, but less so now. It’s just the way we farm.”

Marshall believes tillage “degrades soil health and the bottom line. Over my career, the investment in our soil will keep paying in yield and income stability. The benefits were established over thirty years ago, and I’m fortunate that my father listened and took action.”

The transition will take a few years, but Marshall says the move to whole-farm continuous no-till should not be an onerous one. “Yes, at first no-till brought problems because we switched from a system that created artificial soil structure to one that was real soil structure. Soil structure takes time for organisms to create. We were farming concrete for a few years. Once we witnessed concrete turning to good friable seedbeds, we realized we were on the right path.”

Marshall says that during the transition, poorly-structured soil may not drain well in the spring. It takes time for micropores, macropores, and natural drainage pathways to be created. “In this phase, it’s easy to panic and revert back to tillage with an ‘open the soil up’ mentality to speed evaporation,” he says. It’s an example of short-term pain (delaying planting each year for a few years), but long-term gain will follow: “We found that over the years, improved drainage and soil structure increased our window for planting, at the same time as they were conserving valuable moisture for crop emergence.”

Marshall acknowledges that tillage appears to put air in the soil, but in reality, does not. “With continuous no-till, we have increased air in the soil profile,” he says. “Air is space for more water and roots, and that is fundamental in climbing the yield ladder. My favourite part about this is, once it’s set up, it’s free.”

BEYOND THE TRANSITION
After a farmer has gone completely no-till, there will still be issues to sort out on an ongoing basis, as with any cropping practice. Marshall says the key to solving these issues is to thoroughly investigate. “If there is a problem, we evaluate the problem, measure how severe is it and decide if anything needs to be done, and if some action does need to be taken, we only look at solutions that don’t involve tillage,” he explains. “Gord Green said it best in our presentation. If there’s a problem, find out what the real problem is instead of blaming it on lack of tillage. It’s a matter of learning and of mindset, with tillage not on the table. If you don’t eliminate tillage completely, it will creep back in.”

As an example, Marshall points to soybean fields scheduled for no-till into corn stalks in 2011. For various reasons in many fields, residue slowed the soil from spring dry-out, and many Ontario farmers reacted by reverting to some sort of tillage for soybeans in 2012. “We tweaked our planter for better residue management and evaluated that small change to see if that would help,” Marshall says. “The change on the planter was for the better, but in the meantime it seems like we haven’t had conditions like 2011 again anyway.”

The only place the Marshalls use tillage is after tile installation and a bit of spot smoothing occasionally if they make the mistake of getting too close to a wet spot and leaving some marks in the field.  “With no-till, the carrying capacity of that soil and the structure of our soil is so much better, it will carry the machines better and we can harvest and plant more quickly after rain, with no ruts created,” Marshall says. “With using no-till continuously, we have better soil than what my father started with two decades ago. No question. The soil gets a little bit better every year instead of a little bit worse.”

In Marshall’s view, continuous no-till also allows for more time to think about other things, like precision agriculture and cover crop planning. “Tillage is a long-term fundamental cause of soil degradation,” he says, advising, “get some confidence. Read soil textbooks. There is so much data and equipment now, there should not be any failure in transition. The switch doesn’t have to be slow and painful.”  •