No Till Pays Dividends, Despite 2009

I understand the heartache of crop failure when stakes are high. I realize the pressures of farming around the weather. But it makes no sense to abandon the good sense of no-till after a bad year.

I sincerely hope what I overheard during a farm meeting last summer was just talk without thought. Farmers were discussing the poor emergence of crops in 2009, when one person said, “Maybe I’ll rent some heavy harrows this fall and fix up the ‘ole cultivator for next spring to blacken the soil before seeding.” Yikes!

Given cool seeding conditions in most of Alberta in 2009, no-till trash talk is not really a surprise. But there is absolutely no substitute for achieving a firm moist seedbed supplied by a good direct seeding system. And moisture is critical in at least 70 per cent of our springs. We can use every drop we can save. How much moisture is available, and when, is vital for crop growth!

In 2009, many areas suffered a soil moisture deficit. However a bigger part of the problem was lack of daytime heating accompanied by cold nights and frequent frosts. That’s weather!

How many times can we expect our crops to recover? If they do, what is the economic outcome of delayed maturity? Production crop insurance can rarely supplement let alone salvage weather-related losses. Sadly, sometimes I have this feeling that certain crop write-offs or reseeding outcomes could have been avoided.

Remember, as partners in nature, both retained “trash” and reduced “tillage” work inseparably in a manner unmatched by any other cropping system to optimize field operations and capture and make the best use of the moisture we get. Timing, luck, and sunshine help. Reverting to a regime of old fashioned tillage can only mean climbing back to where we have already arrived.

After experiencing a cold dry spring like 2009 with poor crop emergence and frequent frosts, retaining residue long promoted by enthusiastic direct seeders comes under new scrutiny.

As an agronomist I trust “the system” can withstand temptations to return to old tillage habits. I’ve seen such confidence frequently tested by veteran (albeit frustrated) farmers faced with excess crop residue in the field. They want to make it work. Understandably for those relatively new to no-till, it’s easy to blame the system and quit.

It’s no fable that on the Prairies, our crops somehow acclimatize under quite a short growing season, making each day and almost every hour in the field matter! Admittedly, there appears to be little argument against the enticement of bare soil to warm and enhance seed emergence and for increased radiation to reduce injury from prolonged frost. But I still observe many direct seeders innovatively achieving good emergence and other agronomic goals (like the oft-forgotten wisdom of eliminating massive soil erosion) without the need for tillage.

NO-TILL WISDOM

When the soil is right for tillage, it’s also likely time to seed. Tillage to mediate crop residue and prepare the seedbed has caused many seed placement disasters. Experienced no-tillers know that the first field-pass is always the easiest. So why not make that your seeding pass?

Tall anchored stubble holds hidden treasure yet to be discovered. Not only can you combine faster if you leave more stubble standing, but in Reduced Tillage Linkages (RTL) studies, taller standing stubble has revealed superior seedbed conditions under more dynamic crop rotations. It makes sense to further reform our seeding and harvest technology to be residue friendly rather than continuing to make this precious resource the enemy.

When it comes to weeds (the real enemy of any cropping system), tillage never has been the answer. For the record, neither has herbicide alone. Just think of the significant advances made against some of our most prevalent and noxious

weeds by simply reducing soil disturbance coupled with a relatively inexpensive pre-seed burnoff — a fact that has fundamentally built the success of no-till.

Fertilizer is for the crop, NOT the weeds. To economize and facilitate the precision placement of plant nutrients, a single-pass seeding operation seems in order.

Ultimately, a successful no-till crop starts with correct opener design plus adequate operator skill. All practical no-till machinery and associated worthwhile effort must function under extremely challenging conditions, providing good seed placement with unpredictable weather and heavy residue due to bumper yield.

NO POINT IN NO-TILL TRASH TALK

I understand the heartache of crop failure when stakes are high. I realize the pressures of farming around the weather. But it makes no sense to abandon the good sense of no-till after a bad year. Besides, would traditional tillage have produced a different outcome?

You get incredible value from moist topsoil with a layer of mulched residue on top. I like nothing better than to return to a field previously hampered by discouraging decades of intensive tillage to find a golden carpet of (almost) weed-free stubble. I pause and kneel, up-rooting a few timely emerging and vigorous plants for inspection. Then I dig a handful of moist topsoil in one hand and gather a sample of mulched residue

in the other. Both have unspeakable meaning, and deserve our deepest respect. That’s when you know that no-till works, despite thoughtless criticism or trash talk!

Ron Heller is an agronomist, formerly with Reduced Tillage Linkages (RTL), in Vermilion, Alta.

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