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Steps to Transition to No-Till
Transitioning fields into a no-till system was once a drawn-out process for brothers Keith and Doug Thompson, who farm near Osage City, Kansas. Fields could take five to 10 years before showing signs of greater tilth and life in the soil. Evidence of greater resiliency in crops could take that long, as well.
That was more than 20 years ago. Over time, the brothers, who now farm in partnership with Keith’s son, Ben, fine-tuned their no-till system. “Now, it takes just takes three years to fully transition fields,” says Keith.
A critical lesson they learned early on is that it is not enough to simply stop tilling. Hand-in-hand with this must come a rotation strategically designed to express diversity and a well-planned frequency and placement of crops within a rotation.
Then came the insight that adding cover crops to the system could potentially increase yields and improve soil health. Most recently, the Thompsons have added livestock to achieve more enhanced benefits from their no-till cropping system.
A strategically designed rotation remains the solid foundation.
“We grow two years of milo or corn followed by two years of soybeans,” says Keith. “After that, we grow two years of a cereal crop like winter wheat or barley.”
Thus, the stacked cycles alternate between a warm-season grass species, a warm-season broadleaf, and a cool-season grass. The four-year break between main-crop species disrupts populations of weeds and insects that may have started to build during the two years that fields grew the same crop back to back.
As often as weather and field conditions permit, the Thompsons plant a multispecies cover crop after each main crop. These, of course, add further diversity to the system. Either rye, barley, or triticale serves as the base crop for a diverse mix including at least six species. The mix of species is tailored to enhance rotational diversity to the previous main crop.
Species blended into the cover crop may include winter peas, mung beans, common vetch, hairy vetch, sunflower, buckwheat, radishes, or turnips. They plan to cut back on brassicas in the cover crop mix because of brassicas’ effect on soil residue. Reducing these in the mix may help to slow the otherwise rapid decomposition of residue in their soils.
“In our system, brassicas seem to burn up carbon too fast,” says Keith. “Our goal is to put carbon into the soil.”
Adding carbon improves soil quality on the Thompson farm and also plays a more far-reaching role.
“Much of my recent reading suggests that practicing no-till and including cattle grazing in a cropping system effectively sequesters carbon in the soil,” he says. “As this happens, the carbon dioxide in the air may be lowered.”
A present benefit of their system includes abundant soil life. “Bugs and worms are everywhere on our farms,” says Keith. “The abundant soil life improves soil quality, and this helps water infiltration. We have a lack of runoff because water runs into the soil.” The added moisture-holding capacity of their soil gives crops greater resiliency in dry weather.
Reduced input costs are additional benefits of their diverse no-till system. The most immediate savings back in their start-up years showed up in fuel and machinery costs.
“The first year we quit tilling, we saved $5,000 in fuel costs,” says Keith. “Our repair costs went down. As a five-year average, we had been running $30 an acre in repair costs. Over the first five-year period of no-tilling, our repair expenses dropped to $15 an acre. We didn’t see a super yield advantage from no-till, but the cost savings led to increased income.”
While in some years chemical inputs are reduced, these have tended to remain at the same level as they were before switching to no-till.
“We apply a preplant herbicide to fields. The individual year and annual field conditions determine whether or not we have to go back later on and clean up with another herbicide treatment,” says Keith.
“Our herbicide costs do vary from year to year but have stayed relatively steady. In a worst-case scenario, our chemical use is the same as it was when we were tilling. In many instances, we are able to use less chemical.”
They have found that cover crops are particularly effective at reducing chemical inputs.
“When there is a cover grown in a field before the main crop, 90% of the time we never have to go back and spray the field again,” he says.
Yet, in most of the fields where there is no cover grown, the Thompsons follow the preplant herbicide with a postemergence spray to control weeds.
The cover crops make an ideal entry point for cattle into the cropping system. After cover crop growth is established, the Thompsons let cattle graze about half of the growth. Ben manages the controlled grazing of the cattle. Using temporary cross-fencing, he moves cattle daily or weekly, depending upon grazing conditions in each field.
“The cattle add another dimension to soil health,” says Keith. “Processes in cattle’s digestive system enhance soil quality. The trampling of the residue by their hooves stimulates the microbiology in the soil.
“Every time Ben has grazed cattle on a farm, that farm will invariably produce more than it had been producing,” Keith says.