Answers To The Hottest No-Till Questions

What farmers are asking about the conservation practice. Tom J. Bechman

Published on: Apr 10, 2005

Maybe you’ve no-tilled for 20 years, or maybe you’re trying it for the first time this spring. Two facts ring true: First, both of you will ask questions, and second, they won’t be the same questions.

That’s why the Ripley County Soil and Water Conservation District sponsors an annual no-till breakfast. It’s the one meeting where you’re a star once you walk in the door. That’s because discussion centers around questions posed by farmers, and answered by farmers, ag businesspeople and soil conservation staff right on the spot. Here are key questions farmers asked this year:

How can I take care of soil compaction? "It’s the No. 1 thing we want to make sure we’re not fighting before we no-till," explains Barry Fisher, director of the Indiana Conservation Tillage Initiative. "Even veteran no-tillers may face this challenge if they pick up new ground."

One farmer in the audience praised his ripper for helping him break up soil compaction and keep soils loose. He operated a DMI in-line ripper, ran it at moderate speed in the fall, and then planted into it in the spring. Running it in the spring wasn’t an option in his tight, wet soils.

"If you’re going to do it, use an in-line ripper," Fisher says. "It leaves more residue. Plus, you can plant into it. Following traditional rippers, you typically need secondary tillage."

What about cover crops? "Early on in establishing no-till, I’ve seen cover crops work well," Fisher says. "If you can rip to take out existing compacted layers, then get a cover crop going, it often works well. We’ve seen annual ryegrass used very successfully in those situations."

Why is there so much talk about vertical tillage? The whole goal is getting roots deeper into the soil to maximize use of air and water, Fisher notes. Field cultivators and disks work horizontally, and tend to create bands or layers running crossways under the surface. Vertical tillage consists of running a vertical in-line ripper, followed later by a pass with a vertical finishing tool. These include the To The Max harrow, Phillips harrow and Phoenix harrow, among others.

"The idea with the finishing tools is to level out and break the surface," Fisher says. "It’s often a good way to make the transition to no-till."

Should I apply hi-cal lime or dolomitic (high magnesium) lime? One guy tells me one thing, then the next one says the opposite. What should I do? "Unless you’ve actually seen a magnesium deficiency, I lean toward high-calcium lime in no-till," Fisher says. "You’ve got to realize that things are different in no-till. It’s all about managing water and air. What we’re concerned about is keeping the surface better aggregated so that water and air can move into the soil below.

"In no-till, it’s often not about pH. We want to apply lime in no-till and apply it often, but it’s so we can keep that top inch of soil in good condition."

Here’s one place where paying attention to base saturation of calcium and magnesium is important, Fisher believes. He suggests shooting for 70% calcium, with no more than 15% magnesium.

What about applying pel lime? A fertilizer dealer latched on to this question. It’s a very high-quality product, he noted, but it’s also high-priced. It’s usually more cost-effective to invest in larger quantities of high-calcium lime rather than pelleted (pel) lime.