Farmers, Conservationists Embrace No-Till Crops in Wake of High Fuel Prices

High fuel prices aren't keeping farmers from tilling fields this fall, but more producers are abandoning plows and V-rippers.

WATERLOO, Idaho — High fuel prices aren't keeping farmers from tilling fields this fall, but more producers are abandoning plows and V-rippers.

No-till acres are steadily increasing in Northeast Iowa. Local conservationists hope government incentives will bolster the trend. By raising crops without disturbing the soil, farmers save money and protect the environment.

In Black Hawk County, the Soil and Water Conservation Commission allocates a portion of its Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding to encourage the practice. Farmers can receive $10 per acre, up to 320 acres, for not tilling the ground. The contracts are for five years; people get paid for three.

For no-till farmers, seedbed preparation is nonexistent. Only a small slit is made in the soil while planting. Since the ground isn't turned over prior to planting, residue from the previous crop protects the soil from wind and water erosion. The practice conserves moisture, reduces runoff, improves wildlife habitat and limits machinery, labor and fuel expenses.

Producers opposed to the practice claim yields are reduced due to soil compaction, added weed and insect pressure and other consequences.

However, farmers utilizing no-till say these problems can be overcome with proper management. Field trials at the Iowa State University Extension research farm near Nashua comparing no-till and conventional tillage this year found no yield penalties.

John Hoffman, a Waterloo farmer and Soil and Water Conservation Commission chairman, almost exclusively utilizes no-till. Corn yields, for the most part, exceeded 200 bushels per acre this fall. Soybeans were in the mid-60s.

"I put beans into cornstalks and had record yields," Hoffman said. "Once the word gets out of its success and people realized yields are comparable, guys will be willing to switch."

Hoffman thinks the price of diesel and incentives may be a catalyst for change. Consolidated Energy in Hudson was selling farm-use diesel for $2.24 a gallon Wednesday. Two years ago at this time, it was a $1 cheaper.

According to the Conservation Technology Information Center at Purdue University in Indiana, no-till farming saves 3.5 gallons of diesel an acre. On a 500-acre farm, paying current diesel prices, that is a savings of $3,920.

The center also claims fewer trips will save a farmers $5 per acre on machinery wear and maintenance costs. That's another $2,500 in savings for 500 acres.

"The economics are there. By using good soil management practices, guys are making good money," said George Cummins, ISU Extension crop specialist based in Charles City, referring to fuel and machinery savings and government incentives.

There are still plenty of doubters, Cummins said, judging by the number of farmers tilling this fall. While the practice isn't for everyone, he said, the bi-annual National Crop Residue Management Survey shows local no-till acres are increasing. The survey is coordinated by the CTIC in partnership with the National Resources Conservation Service.

In a Courier story four years ago, state experts predicted no-till acres had peaked locally at 51,367. That wasn't case. Black Hawk County survey numbers in 2004 found 72,370 acres dedicated to the practice. Crop production utilizes 258,555 acres in the county, the survey said.

Shaffer Ridgeway, Black Hawk County NRCS director, hopes the trend continues. Last year 19 Black Hawk County farmers received EQIP money not to till. He hopes to have 25 this year. "I would like to see more do no-till. There are still some challenges.

It takes longer for the ground to warm up (due to crop residue) in the spring, but the data is out there that yields balance out," Ridgeway said.

No-till has come a long way in a relatively short time. Fifteen years ago, less than 3,000 acres weren't tilled for crop production in the county.

Iowa is second in the nation with 5.2 million acres of no-till ground, compared to Illinois with 6.7 million acres. Soybeans are the most popular crop when it comes to utilizing no-till.

Conservation tillage is credited with a 50 percent-plus decrease in soil erosion statewide since 1982. Water and wind erosion dropped from 10.4 tons per acre per year in 1982 to less than 5 tons per acre.

"There's a significant cost for each tillage pass. There's the tangible cost of diesel and equipment and the unintended cost is soil (loss)," Hoffman said.

EQIP was created in the 1995 Farm Bill to improve and sustain natural resources. Communities identify problem areas and landowners apply for cost-share assistance to correct them.

Applications for EQIP funds can be filled out at the NRCS office at 3222 Thistledown Drive. The office is moving to a new location at 2950 Southland Drive on Dec. 1.

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Copyright (c) 2005, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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