40 YEARS OF ‘THE FARMER’
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
No-till success motivated by challenges
(Editor’s note: V. Allan Bandel is a retired soil scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Maryland.)
It’s been more than 40 years since Mid-Atlantic farmers started taking seriously the no-till movement.
Many years have passed since that beginning, and some folks may have now forgotten, but few can dispute Kentucky’s claim to the distinction of being the birthplace of the modern no-till crop production movement in the mid-1960s.
But, it is also unlikely that folks would argue the fact that Maryland shared that distinction with Kentucky.
These two states proudly shared in leading the way in the United States, concerning early farmer recognition and adoption of that very important, exciting new agricultural practice, no-tillage crop production.
According to results from a 1997 National Crop Residue Management Survey conducted by the Conservation Technology Information Center in West Lafayette, Ind., the top six states were Kentucky with 51 percent of its cropland acreage in no-till; Maryland with 46 percent; Tennessee with 44 percent; West Virginia with 39 percent; Delaware with 38 percent; and Ohio with 37 percent.
Nationally, 36 percent, or 103.8 million acres, of all cropland was planted to some form of conservation tillage in 1996.
Frequently referred to disparagingly in the “early” days with names such as “farming dirty” or “farming ugly,” no-till was considered radical by some growers when it was first introduced in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Nevertheless, many growers decided to adopt a practice that would probably have horrified their agrarian forefathers.
No-till crop production today is considered one of the most important soil and water conservation practices to have ever been introduced and subsequently widely accepted by growers, at least since the time when terracing and contour strip cropping first became popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
Modern day no-till crop production is identified by many names. Whether referred to as no-tillage, minimum tillage, reduced tillage, mulch tillage, ridge tillage, conservation tillage, or whatever, over the last three or four decades, this revolutionary crop production practice has become widely accepted by growers in Maryland, Kentucky and the Mid-Atlantic region.
Eventually, acceptance spread across numerous other states and regions of the United States.
Even though many site specific variations of no-till evolved over time, all variations were based upon the broad no-till theme of conservation tillage, a theme that embraces them all and has probably become the most appropriate all-encompassing label for this practice.
From the earliest pre-Paraquat days of no-till research to the present time, no-till cropping has presented researchers with many interesting challenges, especially in the realm of nitrogen fertilizer management. Many years of intensive research have been devoted to determining the fate of fertilizer nitrogen applied to no-till corn, often with surprising results.
After nearly 50 years of field research over a wide range of growing conditions, many interesting and unexpected details have been revealed regarding nitrogen management related to rates of N application, sources, placement, time of application, leaching, volatilization, denitrification, immobilization, and so forth.
These factors often display a unique set of parameters when applied to no-till and are often significantly different from when applied to the more historically well-known conventional tillage practices.
Basic and applied research have disclosed how these important components of nitrogen fertilization must be managed in order to achieve the highest nutrient efficiency in a no-till environment.
According to the USDA, the health of the Chesapeake Bay has improved since the 1970s. But, there is still much room for improvement.
In the Mid-Atlantic area, specifically, conservation tillage has had, and continues to deliver, a major positive influence upon achievement of the goals of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative established in 1984.
No-till has helped to significantly reduce soil erosion losses from farm fields as well as aid in continuing attempts to reach the ambitious goal of achieving the original 40 percent nutrient runoff reduction goal (phosphorous and nitrogen) originally set for the year 2000.
Fortunately, conservation tillage has been a cost effective practice for farmers to implement. It has been a key factor in protecting the environment for society in general, and it has economically benefitted the agricultural community.
Although there are numerous other factors in addition to no-till that have contributed to increased yields, such as improved varieties, more effective weed control, and better overall crop management, there is no doubt that no-till, and the improved fertilizer and soil management practices that are a basic part of the no-till method, played a key role in this wonderful success story.
Corn continues to be a very important crop in Maryland where average grain yields have increased steadily from less than 60 bushel per acre in the mid 1960’s to a record 158 bushels per acre in 2013. I consider myself very fortunate and proud to have been associated with the multi-state team effort that successfully contributed to bringing about this modern day “agricultural revolution”.