There are several remaining challenges in the near future. Because the Brocks use a cover crop in their no-till operation, the timing of crop harvest, cover crop planting, cover crop termination and crop planting is very important and is a challenge. Davis must plant his cover crops before winter sets in and sometimes harvests the cash crop a little early in order to meet the winter deadline. The Brocks are looking for ways to increase the conversion of carbon to stable humus.
The sections below describe the producers’ thoughts about the future of conservation tillage.
No-Till Will Evolve
As more producers work with no-till and try no-till on different types of crops, it may evolve into a type of a blend, or a “middle ground,” between strict no-till and conventional tillage, suggests Winslow. Kirk Brock thinks that no-till works differently for different crops. Cotton requires warm soils earlier than no-till allows and cotton seeds need to be planted uniformly at 3/4 inches deep, which is difficult with no-till. However, peanuts bloom and peg better under the cooler conditions. Winslow has observed that after many years of no-till, the soil condition reaches a plateau and begins to compact.
No-till will also evolve because of herbicide-resistant weeds. These weeds will be the number one challenge in the future. In addition, weed control is a major limitation for the producers who want the soil quality of no-till and also want to be certified organic. For these producers, weed control options include hand pulling, thermal incinerations, and the allelopathy and shading effects of cover crops. If there is no effective organic weed control with strict no-till, then no-till for these producers will evolve, such as allowing shallow tilling only for weed control. The Winslow Farm has temporarily returned to conventional tillage for weed management on their organic fields. They are actively experimenting with different methods to manage weeds without chemicals or tillage, and are studying the effects of soil chemistry on various weed species.
Even those producers who are not interested in organic certification feel that herbicide-resistant weeds would be the only reason to consider abandoning no-till. However, the soil quality benefits of no-till are so significant that these producers are likely to try new weed management ideas first. The Brocks state that they look for herbicides that can move through the straw down to the soil. They have been identifying and removing Palmer amaranth to prevent its spread. Rawlins has had some problems with pigweed, particularly Palmer amaranth.
Triple J Farm reports that weeds are more problematic with cotton than with their other field crops. This is because the cotton plant canopy develops slower, allowing more time for weeds to grow in the sunlight.
Future Transitions Will Be Easier
All producers expect future transitions to conservation tillage will be easier. First, there is so much more information now. Second, implements have significantly improved. For example, shanks for subsoilers are narrower, row cleaners are available to brush loose residue from the path of the planter and press wheels have been modified. Third, and most importantly, there are more experienced producers who can be mentors.
Cover crops will be used more often. The Davises expect cover crops to be blends, such as a vetch/rye mixture, to provide various services such as water channels, nitrogen and residue for the next cash crop. The future Davis Farm will be “never till” and “ever green.” Most nutrient leaching to the groundwater occurs during the fallow period. A cover crop cycles nitrogen back up into plant material and reduces the amount leaching to the groundwater. As inorganic fertilizer prices increase, nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as vetch will more than pay for themselves. The Davis Farm is conducting a study to determine the ecotype of vetch that will grow the latest into the fall and break dormancy earliest in the spring.
The Davis Farm is working with Virginia Tech and the local SWCD to try new technologies such as Green Seeker for more accurate nitrogen fertilizer application. Winslow is experimenting with compost extract and fish fertilizers to reduce weed populations and to reduce plant pests and diseases. Triple J Farm has added a heavy coulter row cleaner by KMC. This has made planting into wheat easier, and they will try it with corn residue. If successful with corn, Triple J Farm will not have to mow corn stalks. Auto-steer technology guides the tractor by GPS, freeing the operator to more closely monitor the planting equipment.
New Market Opportunities
Paul Davis thinks that because no-till increases soil organic matter, there is a potential to participate in future carbon- and/or nutrient-trading markets. The Winslow Farm has built its own compost extraction process to experiment with new ways to inoculate the soil with organisms.
No-till will expand into other crops, especially when petroleum-based input prices increase faster than output prices. Rawlins has expanded no-till from corn and soybeans to cotton, and more recently to peanuts, watermelons and snap beans. If the labor and fuel costs become increasingly important to the farm budget, producers are likely to try no-till for additional crops.