Patience is More Than a Virtue in No-Till

For Rick McCracken, a key to success in no-till is patience. “If you have to be the first one out planting in the spring, no-till isn’t for you,” he says. “But, if you have all your land systematically tiled, you can be out the day after your neighbours start, so that makes the patience factor easier to live with.” Good weed control and a well thought out fertilizer program are also essential. (He also says that it helps to believe that stubble looks pretty.)

Together with one full-time employee and some part-time help, Rick operates a laying hen (16,000 hens) and cash crop farm in Middlesex County. Overall, they crop 1040 acres, rotating corn, soybeans and winter wheat underseeded to red clover. All crops are planted no-till. Usually, corn follows wheat, from which all of the straw has been baled and sold.

One of Rick’s primary motivations for going to no-till was erosion control. His soils vary from clay to light sand, which would blow badly if worked. “We’ve tended to ignore soil erosion in Ontario, both wind and water. It’s such an insidious thing. It just creeps up and before you know it, you’ve got spots that aren’t producing.”

Because all of his fields have been in no-till for many years, Rick is able to rely on quite a simple weed control program. This includes a thorough burn-down program. For corn following wheat, he uses Roundup Transorb in both the fall and the spring. “I wouldn’t try it any other way now,” he says. “Without the fall treatment, there’s too much stuff to deal with in the spring, especially from the red clover, and some of the winter annuals can be pretty tough. Without the spring treatment, there are just too many escapes.” (After soybeans, he has found that a spring burn-down is sufficient.) For in-season weed control, Rick relies on Dual or Primextra pre-emerge, applied with the spring burn-down treatment. This is usually followed by Pardner and atrazine, early post-emergent.

He has also tried Round-up Ready corn and has not been disappointed with the results, although he admits that this year was a tough one for this program. “Roundup has no residual and the canopy was slow in closing this year, so there were some escapes.” With Roundup Ready corn, Rick applies the spring burn-down as a very early post-emergent treatment and then follows up with a second application by the 8-leaf stage of the corn. “Overall, it’s a pretty economical program - just one litre of Roundup more than what I’d be using anyway, plus the cost of the Roundup Ready technology.”

Rick has been using the Rawson three-coulter system since he began no-tilling corn 14 years ago. This system allows him to put down fertilizer in a variety ways, so that all of the crops’ early season needs are met. He applies phosphorus and potash in a 2 X 2 band, and puts down 20 lb/acre of mini-MAP through the insecticide boxes. He likes the boost that mini-MAP gives the corn in the early spring. “We’re seeing a response in yield as well as faster early growth. And the crop looks more even in the spring, especially in a year like this one.”

He believes that it is also important to apply more nitrogen at planting in a no-till system. “In conventional tillage, working the soil in spring warms it up and it releases a fair bit of nitrogen that you don’t get in no-till.” To compensate, he’s been applying about 25 pounds per acre of nitrogen as 28% at planting. Although he has been pleased with the crop response he’s got from 28% since he started no-tilling, he is about to switch to urea. “I’m getting tired of working with 28%,” he says. “There’s the extra tank to have to fill, and there’s always a leak in the system somewhere, no matter how often you fix it. Also the stuff is sticky - and corrosive - it’ll take the paint off anything, and then you get rust. I just hope that I get the same yield response with urea.”

The remainder of the nitrogen requirement is side-dressed as anhydrous ammonia, according to OMAFRA guidelines. By taking advantage of the nitrogen credits for the red clover, soybean stubble and/or manure, Rick has been able to reduce his side-dressed nitrogen to 75 to 80 pounds per acre. He feels confident in cutting back to this level, because of the results he’s seen from plot work done with Doug Aspinall of OMAFRA. This involved testing different nitrogen rates, including zero, to determine the most economical rate. “I’m now quite confident that we used a lot more nitrogen in the past than we needed to.”

Rick has been using a combine yield monitor for the past 7 or 8 years to generate yield maps for all of his fields. His big learning from this exercise is that his fields are not uniform. “Boy! Are my fields ever a whole lot more variable than I ever dreamed! I was astounded. My system to interpret my results may sound ridiculously simple, but I just lay all of the maps for a field out on a table and look them all over. There’s a lot of consistency from year to year. Some spots are always good; some are always poor. Some of the poor spots are eroded, sandy knolls; others I can figure out by taking a soil test; and others remains a mystery, but often they can be cured with a generous application of manure for a couple of years. Those that can’t are probably the result of something about the subsoil that I can’t do anything about.”

Rick does not use the yield monitor for corn hybrid strip trials, feeling that a weigh wagon gives more consistent results when comparing several hybrids. He also does not believe that hybrid selection for no-till is any different than for conventional tillage. “From what I’ve seen, the hybrids that do best for me are the same ones that do well for my neighbours and are the same ones that do well in the Ontario Corn Performance Trials.”

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