By DOUG SCHMITZ
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – For the second time in its 30-year history, the National No-Tillage Conference will be returning to the Bluegrass State, with the four-day event being held at the Galt House in Louisville on Jan. 4-7, the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles has announced.
“We are excited to once again host the National No-Tillage Conference,” Quarles said. “Since the practice first found success in Kentucky in 1962, it’s only fitting we welcome the conference that celebrates and encourages this agricultural execution, back home to where it all began. No-till planting has changed the way Kentucky farmers can work the land for the benefit of all.”
The national conference will include information from leading no-tillers, agronomists, researchers, and other no-till experts sharing ideas for farmers to get the most out of their no-till farming system.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, more than 104 million U.S. acres are in no-till productions.
Mark Licht, an Iowa State University assistant professor and extension cropping systems specialist, said there are pros and cons to non-tillage.
“I’ll start with the downside, and that is initially during the ‘transition’ years, there can be a corn yield penalty,” he said. “This corn yield penalty can be attributed to poor soil structure and porosity (pore spaces that facilitate the availability and movement of air or water within the soil environment) associated with more intensive tillage.
“As the transition continues with no-tillage, the porosity and soil structure continue to improve until the benefits of no-tillage really begin to shine,” he added.
Economically, he said the pros of no-tillage are the reduced labor and fuel associated with no-tillage.
“This can make no-tillage pay off more quickly, even if there is some yield penalty,” he said. “Field fitness is sometimes an understated benefit. This is really evident in the ability for field activities to resume after rainfall events.
“Often farmers noticed improved water infiltration associated with macropore (which drain freely by gravity and allow easy movement of water and air) development,” he added. “Well, this, and improved soil structure/strength, translates into field fitness.”
He said, “The biggest thing is the ability for soil moisture recharge with the spring rains and snow melt. At least in Iowa, water tables are much lower than we would like, even with some October rains. Basically, the October rains help ‘recharge’ the top 24-36 inches of topsoil, but didn’t help raise the water table.
“Now in no-tillage fields, that soil water recharge may be a bit deeper because of macro/micropores that remain in tack,” he added. “These macro/micropores will definitely help no-tillage fields ‘recover’ soil moisture and raise the water table faster than fields that get full-width tillage.”
He said another ‘drought’ benefit to no-tillage fields is the lower soil temperatures and reduced soil water evaporation.
“This means you may be delayed in the initial start to planting, but reducing soil water evaporation can mean a leg up for seeds planted into no-tillage fields,” he said.
Kristina TeBockhorst, Iowa State University field agricultural engineer in Iowa City, said the biggest advantage to no-till is reduced tillage that can promote soil health by increasing the soil’s organic matter, as well as enhancing soil structure.
“No-till and minimum tillage systems can enhance the soil’s capacity to retain moisture, which is especially helpful to get through excessively dry or wet periods,” she said. “No-till fields will often be better off then neighboring tilled fields going into dry periods, with more water conserved in the soil.
“Additionally, reducing soil disturbance long-term can enhance water infiltration into the soil, so that when rain does fall, it can infiltrate rather than pond on the surface or run down the slope,” she added. “Minimal disturbance of the soil and surface residue will prevent erosion by protecting the soil from forces of wind and water. Less erosion also means less phosphorus lost by surface runoff.”
She said input costs of no-till are also often lower due to less passes over the field, less fuel used, and less time and labor spent.
“Long-term research has demonstrated that corn yields can be sustained, compared to more tillage-dependent systems in well-drained soils, and soybean yields are usually not impacted,” she said.
She said the disadvantages or challenges of no-till are, with reduced tillage or no-till, poorly drained soils may warm up slower in the spring and have issues with excess soil moisture in wet springs.
She said, “No-till systems rely on herbicides for weed and cover crop management, and adapting to no-till will probably require making changes to the herbicide program.
She added, “A challenge to consider is that reducing tillage will likely require different equipment or equipment alterations for improved residue management, such as adjustments to the planter to get good seed contact with the soil, and to the combine to distribute harvest residues more evenly.”
Virgil Schmitt, Iowa State University field agronomist in Muscatine, Iowa, said among the major pros of non-till are: 1) Less soil erosion than any other production system; 2) Usually less loss of soil nutrients and applied pesticides in run-off; 3) and soil moisture conservation: “Tillage brings moist soils to the surface where they dry out.”
He said another no-till advantage is it lowers fuel and labor costs more than other systems, and builds soil structure and health: “Tillage tends to destroy soil structure and stimulates bacteria to break down organic matter.”
To help Kentucky farmers and other southern states take a more operative approach to their soil conservation practices, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program has provided scholarship funding to support farmers attending the conference for the first time.
“We are honored to announce this first-ever scholarship, which reflects the importance of soil health, (and) continued education on best conservation practices,” said Frank Lessiter, founding editor of No-Till Farmer, and the 30th Annual National No-Tillage Conference, which is expecting as many as 1,000 attendees in January.
“We are grateful to (the program) for the scholarships for first-time conference attendees, and also to the Kentucky Department of Ag and Commissioner Quarles for (the) support, and welcome of farmers as the event returns to no-till’s Kentucky birthplace in 1962 – 60 years later.”
The scholarship covers the full registration fee of $449 for the four-day event. To apply for the scholarship (limited to first-time attendees from southern states), visit: https://www.no-tillfarmer.com/NNTCscholarship.
The application process will be first-come, first-served through Dec. 15, 2021.