No-till study

In 1981, a tillage study was established at the University of Nebraska Rogers Memorial Farm. According to the UNL website, the object of the initiative was to gain experience with various tillage systems.

UNL Extension engineer Paul Jasa was in charge of the program. Jasa had been working at RMF, located 10 miles east of Lincoln, Nebraska, since 1978. He was given a three-year grant in 1981 to expand his tillage experiments.

“The purpose of the grant was to develop energy-efficient tillage practices,” Jasa said. “Tillage is fuel intensive. The idea was to come up with ways to conserve fuel, energy, labor and soil.”

Now, 40 years into the project, the research and demonstration plots at RMF are showing that the benefits of long-term no-till practices are manifold. Jasa said that no-till plots have been shown to build soil structure, usually have the highest yield and are the most profitable.

“At the time the study began, no one was specifically talking about no-till,” he said. “They were using the term ‘conservation tillage.’”

Conservation tillage was considered any system that left 30% coverage of the ground to reduce wind and rain erosion, he said.

With the grant, Jasa decided to look at six different tilling systems, including the conventional disc harrow for comparison. He established plots using four other basic types of tillage, he then added no-till. He said his thought was: Let’s do anything but plowing.

After examining the results of the first research plots, Jasa said no-till was clearly a difference-maker. He began to endorse the idea.

Tillage was basically eliminated with the no-till system, he said. The method he used required only a narrow slot to be dug in the otherwise covered soil. The seeds were planted in this narrow strip.

Jasa began his other test runs using a coulter, disk seed-furrow opener and hoe opener. For the no-till plot, he started out using a chisel, then single disk, for one-time plowing. He said he soon learned that “conservation tillage” was an oxymoron.

“Any tillage breaks up the surface of the soil,” he said. “That is exactly the level you don’t want disturbed.”

The majority of microbial life is found in the surface of the soil. It is those microbes which break down the phosphorous and nitrogen put into the ground so plants can absorb it.

“No plant can absorb a chunk of material,” Jasa said. “Tillage destroys this microbial life.”

No-till uses a method where crops are grown with “minimal soil disturbance.” This maintains microbial life in the soil and increases the efficacy of nutrients put into the soil by nature and producers.

Initially, Jasa said, attempts at promoting anything that wasn’t disc harrowing were met with resistance and negativity. Farmers had already invested money in traditional tilling equipment. They didn’t see the need to change what they had been doing for generations, he said.

“As time has gone on, the true cost of tillage has gone up,” Jasa said. “Fuel prices have increased dramatically, while herbicide costs have gone down.”

Farmers also argued that tilling gets nutrients into the soil. Jasa would tell them that people apply fertilizer to their lawns, yet nobody tills their front yards. You can add fertilizer and pesticides more effectively if you work with Mother Nature and not against her, he said.

“I told them that Mother Nature doesn’t till,” Jasa said. “We should model after Mother Nature.”

Some producers would state that they didn’t have the right equipment to do no-till planting. Jasa’s response was they probably did. Most planters can be used in no-till systems with little modification. The equipment evolved to work with Mother Nature, as well, he said.

“We began by using stronger down pressure springs and extra weight for better penetration,” Jasa said. “We added 4,400 pounds to our no-till grain drill.”

As an engineer, he said, he talks about equipment (and thoroughly enjoys doing so) but teaches principles of soil management.

“I am an equipment boy; every farmer basically is,” Jasa said. “I should’ve been a soil boy.”

Every farmer looks at their crop above ground. But it is what is below ground that makes those crops grow and determines yield.

Jasa likens it to a manufacturer who makes widgets. From the office above, the producer sees the widgets coming off the assembly line — so they think everything is OK. What they don’t see is the condition of the factory. It’s dilapidated, the equipment is rundown and the employees are sick. The producer could be doing things more effectively resulting in a better yield, he said.

No-till shows higher yield (40-50 bushels more per acre) and thus higher profits when judged on equal terms in equal years, Jasa said. Compared to other tillage methods, no-till also adds to profitability by saving fuel costs and reducing labor requirements, he said.

Even after years of him beating the no-till drum in Nebraska Jasa still experiences resistance to change. He says this lag in adoption is due to three main factors:

  • Rented acres versus ownership — The importance of soil health and improvement might not be at the forefront of someone’s mind who may not be farming the same land next season.
  • Fear of the unknown: Is this system going to work? No. Not if you do it wrong, Jasa said. But if you have the correct crop rotation and can properly manage fertilizer and herbicide — yes, and you will make good money. You’ll get out of it what you put into it — just like about everything else in life. Jasa said he is fond of the Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.”
  • Compaction (between the ears): Tradition = mental resistance. Jasa said younger farmers are afraid that by adopting a new technique they are telling dad and granddad they were doing it wrong. No — they did what they needed to do with the equipment and information they had at the time, he explained. But, like equipment and technology, information has evolved as well.

Today, Jasa can demonstrate the value of no-till practices even more powerfully. Since the three-year grant expired in 1984, the RMF program has continued basically unfunded.

“The farm produces its own funding with the crops it raises,” Jasa said. “If no-till didn’t work, we would not still be here.”

Jon Burleson can be reached at jon.burleson@lee.net.

Jon Burleson is the Midwest Messenger reporter, based out of eastern Nebraska. Reach him at jon.burleson@lee.net.