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Decades-long research shows no-till's value to higher yields

Agriculture.com Staff 02/08/2016 @ 4:12am

A tillage study was established in 1981 at the University of Nebraska Rogers Memorial Farm, 10 miles east of Lincoln, to gain experience with various tillage systems. These dryland research and demonstration plots were started as a soybean/grain sorghum rotation and are now in a corn/soybean rotation. Across the years, they have shown that continuous no-till builds soil structure, usually has the highest yield and is the most profitable.

The no-till treatment on the right developed a better root system and stood better than the disked treatment on the left. All the corn treatments were planted 3 inches deep this year because of the dry conditions at planting time and the dry 30-day forecast. The no-till averaged 235 bushels/acre versus 210 for the disked trial. (The soybean treatments were planted 2 inches deep.)

The yields from 2009 showed that the crops did quite well, even in a year with below normal rainfall. The season started with a full soil moisture profile because of good rains after harvest last fall. As the crop was getting established, only 1.7 inches fell in April and 1.8 inches came in May. Rainfall was more than 6 inches below normal through the growing season with only 1.4 inches falling between July 4 and August 15, during the corn ear elongation period and beginning soybean pod development.

Fortunately, there was enough stored soil moisture to carry the crops through this dry part of the season. About 3 inches came later in August and only 1.7 fell in September, good for the corn, but not enough for complete pod fill of the soybeans. While coming too late to help the yields, about 4.6 inches of rain fell in October which, along with the cool weather, slowed dry down and delayed harvest.

After harvest in 2007, a cereal rye cover crop was drilled into one of the no-till treatments (no-till cultivated in the past) and one of the disk treatments (single disk in the past) to intensify the cropping diversity by adding a winter annual grass to the system. Cover crops use some soil moisture and "harvest" sunlight and carbon dioxide during the off-season to add biomass to the soil system. While this builds soil in the long term, it also allows for evaluation of the effects on yield.

In the no-till corn treatment, the cover crop was sprayed and killed when the rye was about 2 inches tall (about 2.5 weeks before planting corn). In the disk treatment, two diskings were used to kill the cover crop, one in mid-April and the other at the end of April. The corn and soybeans were both planted May 3. The rye cover crop in the no-till soybean treatment was sprayed and killed about 2 weeks later when the rye was just beginning to head.

Similar to 2008, the use of the fall-seeded rye cover crop on the soybean residue decreased the 2009 corn yield for the no-till treatment, resulting in a yield similar to the that of the disk treatment without a cover crop. However, the cover crop on the disk treatment increased the corn yield compared to the disk treatment without a cover crop. The rye cover crop on the corn residue decreased the soybean yields slightly for both the no-till and disk treatments.

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