12 Tips to Make No-till a Success

A panel discussion at this year's No-till on the Plains Winter Conference in Salina focused on several ways to make no-till a success in the High Plains. Panelists included Mark Watson, who farms near Alliance, Nebraska with his brother, Bruce; Keith Thompson, who farms with his son Ben and brother, Doug near Osage City, Kansas and Paul Jasa, extension engineer at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.

1.Maintain 100% Cover: Protecting the soil from wind, heat and erosion is essential, Jasa says. A layer of residue is perfect. If there is no residue, plant a cover crop. Protecting the soil from evaporation is the best chance for success in the arid soils of western Nebraska, Watson adds: "In our low rainfall area, it is vital that we hold onto all the rain we can."

2. Build Organic Matter: Many soils have been battered by tillage and lack of diversity, Thompson says. To build organic matter in these depleted soils, he has deployed crop rotation systems including three years of pasture, three years of cover crops. Soil organic matter has doubled in these fragile soils, greatly increasing water-holding capacity.  

3. Rotate Crops: Mark Watson added field peas to his crop rotation, just to bring more diversity in the system (soybeans don't grow well in his part of the state). Diverse crop rotations minimize pests and disease pressures, Watson says. "Plus, we can manage a lot of weed problems through crop rotation and different herbicide modes of action," Watson says. 

4. Spread the Residue: At harvest, care must be taken to spread crop residue evenly throughout the field, Jasa says. Modifying the combine's straw spreader (or even replacing units that don't do a good job of spreading) may be necessary. Even better: leave as much residue standing as possible. "It's way easier to plant in standing stubble," Thompson says. "I like stalks tall, because they catch the snow and dissipates wind."  Watson says keeping the soil covered with residue has allowed him to reduce the amount of irrigation water he applies to corn, to 7.5-inches in heavier soils and 9-inches in sandy soils. 

5. Spraying Secrets: Successful no-tillers own their own sprayer and know how to use it. "I would like to get to where I don't even use a sprayer, but it is necessary to own one," Thompson admits. "The guys who have trouble making no-till work often have to hire their spraying done, and things don't get done at the right time." Moreover, diversify herbicide applications, Jasa adds. "When glyphosate worked on everything, it was easy. Those days are gone, however. Use residual herbicides to get multiple modes of action." 

6. Take off the Row Openers. "I want to protect the row, so don't plan on using row cleaners at planting," Jasa advises. "If you use them, the row will certainly warm up. But, it will stay warm and dry throughout the growing season. Instead, focus on keeping that row cool and wet throughout the growing season." 

7. Keep the Planter Sharp. Sharp opening disks penetrate residue and keep stalks from hair pinning. Thompson replaces opening disks on his planter every 1,200 acres. You may not want to do it that frequently, but Thompson notes that, "when we started doing that, our seed placement improved dramatically and we virtually eliminated hair-pinning."  

8. Equip the Planter Properly. Thompson outfits his John Deere 1990 planter with a good seed firming device (such as Keeton or Schaffert); closing wheels that break up sidewall compaction, and rubber tubes that drag behind the planter to dribble starter fertilizer on behind the row. Jasa adds that narrow depth gauge wheels on planters or drills leave residue standing to catch snow. 

9. Weight is a Good Thing. You must have enough weight for the down pressure springs to work properly, Watson says. He adds water tanks to his planter and drill as a quick way to add weight when needed. "If it's dry, or we're having to plant in heavy corn residue, we can fill the water tanks to add weight and get good depth," he says. "We know we need to add weight when the planter rides up over the residue."

10. Plant on Old Rows. Jasa says previous corn or soybean rows are the most biologically active areas of the field. If possible, plant on those old rows. "The previous crop created root channels that the new crop can easily follow," he says. Whatever you do, don't plant on old wheel tracks. "You cannot set a planter or grain drill to plant properly in all these conditions: old rows, open ground and wheel tracks," says Jasa, who advocates planting corn a half-inch deeper than your usual setting, where moisture and soil temperature are more stable. "Just try it on a few rounds this spring," he says. "I bet next year you'll plant all of it that depth." 

11. Think Field Peas. To get a legume into his crop rotation, Watson grows field peas, which are a great fit for his arid soils. The market for them is growing; ten years ago, the primary end-use for them was livestock feed; now, field peas are in demand for human consumption and pet food. Watson sells them locally to a dry edible bean processor. "I think anywhere north of I-70 they are a good agronomic fit. They're easy to harvest, and you can use the same grain drill and combine you use for winter wheat," he says. 

12. Use Livestock. Manure is good for the soil, but even better than spreading manure on fields is to bring cattle to the field and let them graze crop residues or cover crops. Thompson added livestock to his system a few years ago, and uses electric polywire and fiberglass fence posts. Four-wheelers are equipped with snouts to push the poly wire down so fences can be easily crossed. The ATV has been modified to easily carry fiberglass posts and can roll/unroll the polywire. Rather than mowing paths through the cover crops to place the fence, he pulls an old tire on the crop to lay it over, which prevents cattle tracking through mowed ground. Finally, the Thompsons mounted a portable solar panel/fence charger combination on a trailer that can be pulled by the ATV to the right spot. Fields will be improved by manure and urine the livestock leave behind, but remember to "graze half and leave half," Jasa says. 

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