A NO-TILL CHAM­PION

AGRON­O­MIST PUTS NO-TILL TO THE TEST IN POORLY DRAINED SOILS.

Successful Farming - - YIELD QUEST -

When agron­o­mist Ja­son Cava­dini be­gan as as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin Marsh­field Agri­cul­tural Re­search Sta­tion five years ago, he got glazed looks from farm­ers at his men­tion of try­ing no-till at the sta­tion. No-till would never work, they said.

“I knew they had more ex­pe­ri­ence with the soil than I did, and so I knew there was good rea­son for what they be­lieved,” he says. “But we’re a re­search sta­tion. If we just demon­strate the sta­tus quo with­out try­ing some­thing else, then what’s our pur­pose for be­ing here?”

Cava­dini had grown up on a no-till farm in west­ern Wis­con­sin, and he’d stud­ied no-till and cover crops as a grad­u­ate stu­dent. The soil con­di­tions he found at Marsh­field, in the cen­tral part of the state, threw him a curve ball, caus­ing him to con­sider lo­cal farm­ers’ bias against no-till.

“The soil here is wet – poorly drained,” he says. “We have 8 to 12 inches of silt loam soil at the sur­face, and be­low that it changes to dense clay.”

The poorly drained soils com­bined with a short grow­ing sea­son have his­tor­i­cally caused farm­ers to till the soil to pro­mote dry­ing and warm­ing of the seedbed. With­out it, the think­ing is that yields would suf­fer. Dur­ing his first year at the sta­tion, Cava­dini fol­lowed suit.

“I just did what I was told ev­ery­one else did,” he says. “That whole first year, I was just try­ing to learn what kind of a beast we were deal­ing with in terms of soil. By the end of that year,

I could un­der­stand why farm­ers have his­tor­i­cally farmed the way they have.”

Nev­er­the­less, Cava­dini pressed on with no-till. His sec­ond year at the sta­tion, he no-till seeded his first crop of corn. Now, four sea­sons later, he has solid proof that no-till works in poorly drained soils.

“I’m fully con­vinced that no-till is work­ing for us,” he says. “The more we get into it, the more other farm­ers are try­ing it and mak­ing it work. We’ve even started a farmer-to-farmer group in our area so farm­ers can share their no-till ex­pe­ri­ences.”

Cava­dini’s start­ing point for no-till on the re­search sta­tion was ground that had been in al­falfa for three years. In a re­gion rich in dairy farms and al­falfa fields, it’s a start­ing point he rec­om­mends for area farm­ers just start­ing out with no-till.

“In terms of sta­bi­lized soil con­di­tions, fields that have been in al­falfa al­ready have a three-year head start,” he says. “By con­trast, fields that have been tilled mul­ti­ple passes each year have soil with no struc­ture. The soil can’t hold up on its own. Tillage leads to more tillage, and it can be hard to break that cy­cle of tillage with­out first in­tro­duc­ing a peren­nial crop.”

The ni­tro­gen that al­falfa fixes in the soil is an­other rea­son Cava­dini rec­om­mends it as a start­ing point for first-time no-tillers. “Al­falfa is the safest place to start be­cause of the ni­tro­gen cred­its al­falfa leaves,” he says. “You can of­ten no-till corn into al­falfa with­out ap­ply­ing any ni­tro­gen and still get re­spectable yields.”

Cava­dini did ap­ply some ni­tro­gen to his first corn crop no-tilled into al­falfa ground. “We were sur­prised by the re­sults of that first corn crop,” he says. “The corn looked bet­ter than we ex­pected, and yields were no less than they were be­fore.

“The big­gest shock was

how the soil re­sponded,” he adds. With its un­der­pin­ning of sta­bi­lized al­falfa ground, the no-till fields in one sea­son be­gan to ex­press greater traf­fi­ca­bil­ity.

“One of the big­gest rea­sons we are pro­mot­ing no-till is be­cause it lets us get in and out of fields with heavy equip­ment with­out get­ting stuck or leav­ing deep ruts that dam­age the sur­face and ne­ces­si­tate tillage,” he says.

Af­ter that first corn crop, he ex­per­i­mented with a ro­ta­tional se­quence in­clud­ing soy­beans. He planted trit­i­cale as a cover crop af­ter har­vest­ing corn for silage. He har­vested the trit­i­cale for hay­lage the fol­low­ing spring.

“Be­hind that, we planted a late-sea­son va­ri­ety of soy­beans,” he says. “We call it a trit-chop soy sys­tem, and we found it to in­crease prof­itabil­ity when we con­sid­ered the ad­di­tional value of the for­age. It pro­vides a way for farm­ers to dou­ble-crop in a north­ern cli­mate.”

In the main, Cava­dini’s flex­i­ble crop se­quence be­hind corn in­cludes cover crops and peren­ni­als, like grasses and al­falfa. These pro­vide for­age for the re­search sta­tion’s dairy herd, while con­serv­ing soil and pre­vent­ing runoff.

Trit­i­cale is Cava­dini’s cover crop of choice.

“Our short grow­ing sea­son gives only a small win­dow of op­por­tu­nity for grow­ing a cover crop, and so we tend to stick with small grains,” he says. “Like ce­real rye, we can plant trit­i­cale af­ter har­vest­ing corn silage. We then har­vest the trit­i­cale for hay­lage the fol­low­ing spring. Trit­i­cale is about as re­silient as ce­real rye, and as it ma­tures, it de­clines in for­age qual­ity more slowly than rye.”

Cava­dini has had suc­cess no-till­ing al­falfa into trit­i­cale in spring be­fore har­vest­ing it for hay­lage.

In just four sea­sons of notill, Cava­dini has seen soil qual­ity im­prove. Soil ag­gre­gates have be­come more sta­ble, and wa­ter in­fil­tra­tion has in­creased. Be­cause of the im­proved drainage and soil struc­ture, he sug­gests farm­ers con­sider no-till as a more cost-ef­fec­tive al­ter­na­tive to in­stalling drain tile.

“We’ve also seen de­creases in runoff car­ry­ing sed­i­ment and phos­pho­rus,” he says. “That’s im­por­tant, be­cause in our area, we have sig­nif­i­cant soil ero­sion dur­ing spring melt. Some ni­trate can run off. Be­cause most soils have had ap­pli­ca­tions of ma­nure, phos­pho­rous is the pri­mary nu­tri­ent leav­ing the field. As a re­sult, wa­ter­ways through­out the state are high in phos­pho­rous, cre­at­ing al­gae blooms. We’re see­ing an in­creas­ing need for farm­ers to im­ple­ment con­ser­va­tion prac­tices to keep sed­i­ments from leav­ing the fields.”

While Cava­dini con­tin­ues to cham­pion no-till as a work­able prac­tice for his re­gion’s poorly drained soils, he says it’s not the end-all for soil and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion.

“No-till is just one piece of the puz­zle,” he says.

For that rea­son, he also demon­strates com­ple­men­tary con­ser­va­tion prac­tices such as grow­ing cover crops and peren­ni­als, and graz­ing live­stock.

“Peren­nial crops are the foun­da­tion of graz­ing en­ter­prises,” he says. “We need ma­nure in the equa­tion to feed the soil bi­ol­ogy, keep­ing the bi­ol­ogy vi­brant and build­ing soils that can hold wa­ter. The graz­ing of live­stock ap­plies ma­nure with lit­tle soil dis­tur­bance and in amounts that are broadly dis­persed and, thus, read­ily cy­cled by soil bi­ol­ogy.

“We’re try­ing to get farm­ers to think in terms of soil qual­ity as much as they think in terms of pro­duc­tion,” he says.

Ja­son Cava­dini

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