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No-till: A continuing education
"It’s like being in graduate school.” That’s how Steve Schmidt of Caldwell, Kansas, describes his 16 years of no-till farming. After 17 years of traditional farming, he decided there had to be a better way, and he made the decision to go exclusively no-till in 1997.
He may have received a degree in agricultural education from Kansas State University, but his education didn’t stop there. He’s taken online classes in agricultural economics, livestock nutrients, and plant physiology. However, a lot of his knowledge about no-till farming has been the result of personal study, experimentation, and experience.
“During the first year of no-till, water erosion was reduced,” says Schmidt. “In the second year, water erosion was almost eliminated. Microbial activity began to break down the residue, and soil structure improved. By the third year, the benefits of no-till really became obvious as soil health improved. After years of no-till, the soil structure became like a sponge – resilient. Earthworms are more prevalent, and compaction becomes less of an issue.”
One less obvious advantage of no-till is the ability to grow different crops,” says Schmidt. “My typical three-year crop rotation is cotton, corn, and wheat. Double-crop soybeans or milo are planted in the wheat stubble.
“Cotton, which is actually a tree, has a long taproot that absorbs nutrients from deeper in the soil, and when the roots decompose, those nutrients are available to shallow-rooted plants like corn and wheat,” he says.
Schmidt dryland farms 2,000 acres, and he usually double-crops 500 to 700 acres.
“Some people say no-till doesn’t work with certain types of soil, but I have Pratt sands, Elanco silty clay, and silty loam soils,” he says. “Half is bottom ground along Prairie Creek and the rest is upland. No-till works on all of it.”
Schmidt also believes livestock is an important part of the crop-rotation program.
“I pasture 200 head of ewes on wheat (or corn and milo stubble) during the winter and seldom hay them. It’s a cheap way to raise livestock and introduce more microbes into the soil,” he says.