More farmers choosing economical, environment-friendly path
ROSSVILLE – Brian Andrews parked his moldboard plow in 1978, and he hasn't used it since.
Andrews, who farms near Rossville, was one of the first farmers in Vermilion County to try no-tilling corn and soybeans to help save the soil and money spent on fuel.
"I plant all my corn in last year's bean stubble and all my beans in last year's corn stubble," Andrews said of field practices that are growing in popularity in Illinois, according to an annual statewide survey. "I'm 100 percent no-till."
He's one of a handful of Vermilion County farmers who use reduced tillage practices planting corn, according to a recent statewide survey that says 97 percent of the farmers in that county use conventional tillage practices. But about half the farmers in the county plant no-till soybeans.
Statewide, farmers are starting to get the no-till message, says Bill Frazee, an Extension specialist at University of Illinois Extension's East Peoria office, who helped coordinate results of the statewide tillage practice survey conducted by the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resource and Conservation Service and county soil and water conservation districts.
"Economics is driving this transformation," Frazee said. "With escalating fuel prices, more and more farmers are pushing the pencil and realizing that no-till is the way to go."
He said this year, for the first time in history, no-till crop practices were used on more acres than conventional tillage – on 33.1 percent of all Illinois land planted with corn, soybeans and grains compared to 31.2 percent for conventional tillage.
In conventional tillage systems, farmers plow after crops are harvested, burying the residue and leaving the soil exposed to wind and water that cause erosion. In no-till systems, farmers leave residue on the surface to protect the soil, preventing erosion and saving gas money from those extra trips across the field.
Frazee said farmers' enthusiasm about Roundup Ready soybeans was a big factor in their adoption of no-till practices on 51 percent of all bean acres. Beans tolerate the herbicide for which they are named, and it's an effective weed control in no-till systems.
"In 2006, 90 percent of Illinois farmers planted Roundup Ready beans, a jump from about 64 percent in 2001," Frazee said. "It's just snowballed."
No-till corn acreage has made slight gains, but it still lags far behind soybeans because no-till keeps the ground cooler and wetter and can stunt growth of corn, which is planted earlier than soybeans. Only 16.7 percent of the corn ground in the state is no-tilled.
Frazee said tillage scouts toured the state after planting season to look at residue left on fields protecting the soil. If residue covers 15 to 30 percent of a field, that's considered reduced tillage; if the land hasn't been touched, that's no-till; and if residue covers less than 15 percent of the land, that's considered conventional tillage.
Frazee said it's also encouraging to see that 35.7 percent of the state's farmers got the message that it's a good idea to leave at least 15 percent residue on fields.
He said in 1994, when the first tillage survey was conducted, only 22.7 percent of the crop land was in no-till systems, 46.1 percent was tilled conventionally and 30.2 percent of it was covered by at least 15 percent residue.
Jim Tucker's another Vermilion County no-till fan. He said he started no-tilling both corn and soybeans in 1994.
"We did it for conservation purposes," Tucker said. "It gets the physiology of the soil back to the way nature intended. We changed all at once because if you no-till one crop and not the other, you kill everything you did the year before."
He said it takes about five years for the soil to "mellow" and for the system to start paying off. "A lot of farmers give up because they don't see improvement," Tucker said. "Keep at it; that's the biggest thing. The rewards are out there, especially with high fuel prices."
Tucker's reward last year: corn yields that averaged 210 bushels an acre and bean yields in the 60-bushel range.
He said soils in the Bismarck-Collison area where his farmland is are light, fields are rolling and erosion was a problem in the past.
"We've eliminated 90 percent of the erosion, and by keeping the organic matter in the top six inches, the ground stays loose and allows roots to breathe," Tucker said.
Andrews said no-till soybeans have proven they can grow under almost any conditions.
"Roundup Ready beans helped a lot," he said. "Economics are starting to dictate using these practices. People are farming more acres, they're using their time more efficiently, and $3 diesel makes no-till a lot more attractive."
Andrews, who just returned from the Illinois Farm Bureau's annual meeting, said because ethanol prospects are so hot and corn prices have been so strong, a lot of farmers there were talking about planting continuous corn or at least a higher percent of corn. That's causing them to think more about field practices.
"They're talking about strip till, tilling between the corn rows from the year before and planting corn there," Andrews said. "Guys who planted 30-inch-row beans did it and liked it, so the thinking is that it might work for corn. When I no-tilled, I just went down the old crop row."
Emerson Nafziger, a UI crop scientist, said he's studied crop results in tilled and no-tilled continuous corn to help farmers make decisions. He said it's easier to meet residue requirements in fields planted with corn every year because corn produces so much more trash.
"There are a lot of minds on continuous corn," Nafziger said. "We're fairly comfortable in central Illinois farmers can do no-till and not reduce yields. It's a way to cut costs. When you get into colder soils, it's more difficult and in southern Illinois tilling reduces moisture content so you can gain yield with no-till.
"We're between those two worlds in an area where people who put their minds to making it work can do so successfully."
Andrews is in a 50-50 rotation, and he's not going to change that when he plants next spring.
But he's keeping a close eye on the economics.
"Right now, economics show if you want to make the most money, you should plant corn," Andrews said. "If you plant 180-bushel corn and get $3.50 a bushel, after you deduct costs and rent, you can still guarantee yourself $200 an acre. Beans won't do that even though it costs less to plant them."
He said he and other farmers have to be flexible enough to respond to market conditions.
"I like rotation, and if corn's $4 or more, soybeans will be higher than they are now," Andrews said. "Next year, we'll look at it again."