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What lies beyond no-till? Sustainable?

No-till has matured. It is no longer the hottest, most cutting-edge, new thing. So what is?

Rene Van Acker, professor and associate dean of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, addressed that question at this year’s No-till on the Plains annual conference, held in Salina Jan. 24-25.

Van Acker said advancements in agriculture present a unique challenge because agriculture must manage living systems, and is reliant on a living, finite soil resource.

After the “green revolution,” he said, a common industrialized model of agriculture became typical. Synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and high-yielding crop cultivars drove yield and gross economic productivity gains.

Key Points

• No-till is no longer the hot new thing on the block.

• Even “sustainable” is not the final answer; what brings returns to society is key.

• Agriculture of tomorrow needs to think “regenerative.”


For farmers in Canada, (Van Acker’s reference point) that soon meant declining value per unit of output, a steady decline in commodity prices, and a shrinking profit margin. So farms grew larger and more specialized in order to increase production and profit.

The advent of no-till meant a reduction in the cost of tillage and inputs such as fuel. It also improved soil quality and the rebuilding of organic materials, allowing millions of fallowed acres to return to production.

However, he said, it has not been the entire answer. Chemical use has led to resistant pests. Monoculture growing systems are at greater risk of attack.

So what comes next?

Diversity, says Van Acker.

What you need for an inherently resilient, robust and restorative system is diversity. He cites nature as a model. In natural ecosystems, there are no monocultures, but rather an interdependency of plant and animal life that support each other.

Farmers can achieve diversity in many ways, he said, but key among them are crop rotation, including the regular integration of legumes into the system. Another key is the addition of perennials to change the timing of management systems, and add pest management benefits and integrated livestock systems, which integrate with growing cover crops for forage and provide an additional economic benefit for farmers.

“I would say we even need to move beyond terms such as ‘sustainable’ and talk about ‘regenerative’ agricultural systems,” he said. “We need to look at what produces valuable returns to society. That includes abundant, safe, reliable and cheap raw commodities; safe, high-quality food; continuous improvement of soil fertility; clean water; and niche products for a clean energy platform.”

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VISTING THE SHOW: Farmers take advantage of a break in presentations at theNo-Till on the Plains annual conference, held in Salina Jan. 24-25, to visit with vendors who participated in the conference trade show.

This article published in the March, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.