An option to seriously consider

This 12-row no-till planter makes easy work of no-tilling corn directly in the center of 5 to 6-inch tall and about 6-inch wide berms made the previous fall in soybean stubble with a strip-tillage unit. Note the implement steering unit mounted on the rear of the no-till planter to provide exact alignment in the center of the strip-tilled berms.
Photos by Frank Lessiter.

Jeff Moyer, farm director at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., takes two steps back before stepping forward when explaining his decades-long experimentation with organic no-till growing and farming.

Twenty years ago, he was working with Dr. Rhonda Janke, an extension specialist at Kansas State University, on reduced tillage programs for grain crops. In one field, they had about 100 research plots that utilized various cover crops. While driving a tractor just beyond the plot area, they crushed a hairy vetch cover crop. Then, while planting, they drove the planter into the crushed cover crop. “It was like a mat of cardboard, but soon these little corn plants popped up,” Moyer recalls.

At the same time, he was promoting organic practices to farmers along Maryland’s eastern shore, many with thousands of acres. They were concerned with the amount of plowing, tilling and cultivating a typical organic farm requires for weed management, and also with tearing apart the microorganisms in their soil after having built them up, all for clean, fresh soil for planting. Increasingly, the growers were also finding they didn’t have the time—or money—to do all that tillage.

Smaller, already organic vegetable growers, because of crop rotation, were sometimes tilling three to four times a year. It wasn’t sensible in Moyer’s mind, so he developed an organic no-till system. He soon found his soil improved, and did a better job with correctly chosen crops, while still managing weeds. “We’re building the health of our soil like a dairy farmer strengthens his herd,” he says.

Today, Moyer no-tills with grain production, soybeans and corn on Rodale’s 333-acre expanse, all of it certified organic except for 12.5 acres of vegetables in long-term research plots that compare organic versus conventional production systems. Moyer has also done no-till with cotton and peanuts, and lately, an expansion into the vegetable sector, mostly with tomatoes, pumpkins and squash. The farm grows organic apples, but Moyer hasn’t experimented with no-till in the orchard yet. The farm supports a 200-member CSA.

With tomatoes and pumpkins, Moyer is mostly trying to replace the black plastic mats with natural residue, which is then rolled and crimped under with a tool he pioneered and popularized in a one-pass procedure. Still, some vegetables, like cucumbers, “just grow better in the black plastic,” he says.

In general, though, the plastic is labor-intensive to lay and remove. It’s not easy to recycle, “and when you’re trying to build the soil, but all you’re doing is covering it to keep the ground warm, when you pull it off, the soil is virtually dead. And in organic that doesn’t make sense,” Moyer says. “Black plastic also reduces irrigation because of runoff.”

In the production fields, he’s intensified management of cover crops, gradually shifting from a cash crop dominance to improve soil quality and serve as a steward of conservation practice, a Rodale staple. “In the future, farmers are going to be recognized for the environmental benefits they provide society, and not so much for the crop or healthy food they produce,” Moyer says. “We still till, but we do as much with cover crops as we can. We find as many opportunities as we can to cover the soil with something green.”

Even in a snowstorm, cover crops are growing beneath, and they are producing nitrogen and feeding microorganisms.

In fall, Moyer plants legumes, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, crimson clover or grasses like wheat and rye. By early spring, the legume plants reach about 2 feet tall, producing as much as 3 tons of biomass per acre and flower. The grasses can reach 6 feet in height before flowering. Then, he interrupts their life cycles with his roller-crimper, which lays the plants over against the ground, crushes the stems, and kills them to form a dense mulch layer. Then, he no-till plants cash crops that partner best with the cover crops before them. Legumes go well with grasses, soybeans are planted into rye and corn goes into legumes, hairy vetch or Austrian winter peas.

“It’s hard to put a dollar figure on the benefits from cover crops,” Moyer says. “But once you have the nitrogen, you’re not buying it. There’s also no time spent and energy lost pulling or cultivating weeds. And any time you can drag equipment into a conversation with a farmer, you’ll get his attention.”

Gardeners have always mulched out weeds. Now, Moyer says, “we’re taking that “logic into our fields. We’re providing additional tools for managing weeds.”

Intentionally, he never patented his tool, a front-mounted roller-crimper, but rather shared it (see Rodale Institute designed and built the prototype, and I & J Mfg. in Gap, Pa., has begun building them commercially.

“We want farmers to be interested enough that they would also build their own,” Moyer says.

An ongoing experiment, even 20 years later, Moyer still considers no-till a revolution. “We really think it is,” he says. “There are more tools for weeding than running steel in a field. For too long farmers haven’t paid attention to their soil. I’ve always wanted everything on my farm to work as hard as I do.”

An expert in the field

Frank Lessiter knows that if you get 30 no-till farmers together, you’ll have 30 somewhat different successful systems. “It’s a good thing,” he says. “You have to make a system fit your own fields and farms. There’s no one system. We like to tell growers that we can give you the ingredients for no-till, but you have to write your own recipe.”

Despite large amounts of residue from several years of continuous corn, growers are still able to no-till corn into this stubble.

At Lessiter Publications in Brookfield, Wis., Lessiter has been doing that with a monthly publication he’s edited since 1972, “No-Till Farmer.” Each year, his staff produces eight newsletters and four magazines dedicated to the ever-popular trend. There were 3.2 million no-till acres when he launched the publication, but as recently as three years ago there were more than 63 million no-till acres, predominately in the East and Midwest, and mostly soybean and corn to a lesser extent, and small grains like wheat, Lessiter says.

He’s run the National No-Till Conference every January for 18 years. It typically draws 800 growers to sessions and topic-specific roundtables. The conference rotates between Cincinnati, Des Moines, St. Louis and Indianapolis. Even recently, when he didn’t think there would have been much interest in a no-till organic workshop, 40 farmers attended the session.

“It’s an attitude,” Lessiter says. “We’re not starting at ground zero anymore as it was years ago when even plant pathologists wouldn’t have dreamed of plowing residue back under.”

But the cost savings gained with fewer trips, less labor, fuel and machinery wear and tear, the conservation of moisture and production of nitrogen, and yields as good or better, it’s hard to argue against no-till, or the synonymous zero tillage and direct seeding.

Crop residue rolled down to provide weed control.
“It was like a mat of cardboard, but soon these little corn plants popped up,” Moyer recalls.

His average reader farms 1,400 acres, but some upwards of 10,000 acres. “If you have that kind of acreage, and you save one trip, it’s a tremendous time savings,” Lessiter says. “The biggest concern is that you’ll take a yield hit, but that’s what happens if you listen to one guy who tried no-till 10 years ago, lost 10 bushels an acre and bad-mouthed it ever since.”

Cover crops are catching on as a no-till practice because growers can generate 40 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre, he says. Of the 10 to 15 cover crops, like oats and turnips, “what’s really popular is a cocktail, a mix,” he says. “You get them growing on bare soil for protection during the winter, and they capture moisture and grow nitrogen.”

If you have 800 or 900 acres, try 40 or 100 acres, Lessiter advises. Plant a couple cover crops, and evaluate. “The mark of a no-till farmer is that they are all innovators,” he says. “They will try new things.”

Making the changeover

Out of college—and now—Barron “Boots” Hetherington gets $3 to $4 a bushel for his corn.

At B&R Farms in Pattersonville, Pa., he has gone 100 percent no-till, and it’s helped him even the playing field. On 440 acres, he grows feed corn, soybeans, oats and hay, but also has 15 acres in produce, mostly strawberries, cabbage, peppers, tomatoes and sweet corn.

“No-till saves me a bundle of money, plus it saves on the wear and tear of the tractors, it’s better for the soil, and best of all, it gets you planted early instead of spending time plowing all of April,” Hetherington says. “I put the soybeans in early, and I’ve had the highest yields ever. It’s simple, the earlier you plant, the better the soybeans do.”

He bought a no-till drill through various then-healthy federal and state grant programs. One was a Chesapeake Bay Foundation grant as part of Pennsylvania’s Resource Enhancement and Protection Program (REAP), which provides state income tax credits for no-till equipment and other agricultural best management practices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Hetherington saved $1,100 in income tax a year ago. “That drill makes me money, and the tractor doesn’t,” he says.

Lessiter says some counties in Iowa are offering a $40-an-acre incentive for no-till, but the federal programs offered by National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and others have seen recent funding cutbacks.

Initially, with no-till, a grower’s biggest fear is a cutback in crop, yield drag or a fear that his corn won’t come up at all. Hetherington’s advice is, “Don’t give up right away. Give it two or three years. You’re going to have weak spots, or wet spots where the seed didn’t take, but the overall yields are fantastic.”

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.