No-till makes a difference where the rain meets the soil

Paul Kelly Jr. grew up in Clinton County learning to farm from his father who started experimenting with the new idea of no-till in 1980.

When it comes to his no-till fields, Paul Kelly Jr. take a very keen interest in what is happening “where the rubber meets the road.” Though in this case, “where the water meets the soil” is more appropriate.

For this reason, when most farmers are parking their equipment in the barn and heading indoors due to a rainstorm, Kelly has been known to head out in the elements to observe his Clinton County fields.

“I’ve spent a lot of time walking my fields in the rain and comparing them to the conventional fields of my neighbors,” Kelly said. “I have collected jars of rainwater running off our fields and the others’ tilled fields and we never have nearly the soil loss. In the jars from my fields I would get floating crop residue. In the jars from the conventionally tilled fields there would be soil. That proved to me that the practices we are using are really performing.”

Kelly grew up learning to farm from his father who started experimenting with the new idea of no-till in 1980.

“I grew up moldboard plowing and the idea of no-till was new to me,” Kelly said. “We tried it in corn on one of our best farms and had a good first crop. But after that first year, the transition got tougher because of problems that were totally weather dependant.”

After some trial and error with no-till, a big change came to the farm.

“In 1983, dad had an auction and sold all of the equipment. I was heartbroken because all I ever wanted to do was farm,” Kelly said. “But then he bought a used tractor and a double-frame 6-row planter. I was in high school and I bought a sprayer and we made the full transition to no-till. Then I got a chance to rent some ground in 1984 and I started farming full-time.”

Those first rented fields were challenging for a young farmer starting out with 100% no-till.

“Around here they call those soils ‘crawdad ground’ because it is very poorly drained,” Kelly said. “It took really thick skin because of all of the coffee shop talk that revolved around how I would fail. Being young and dumb with nothing to lose, I no-tilled it anyway and it worked, but there was a real learning curve.”

One of the first things Kelly learned about no-till was the patience it required.

“My farm always needed another two or three days to get fit,” he said. “But at that time, dad was farming 1,000 acres and I was farming around 500 all with one six-row planter. We were working from morning until after dark every day it was fit, so we had plenty to do while we waited on that crawdad ground.”

The father/son team also did quite a bit of experimentation with the equipment they were using.

“We spent a lot of time experimenting with no-till coulters. We tried many kinds, but we never found one that quite suited us. We even tried some ridge-till,” Kelly said. “Every coulter we tried was causing compaction and limiting root growth. But with every obstacle in no-till, you ether succumb to the peer pressure and till or you hunker down to correct the wrongs and see if you can correct the problems next year. And, with no-till, we were keeping our costs low for those years where things did not work out like we wanted.”

Technology also contributed to improvements with no-till.

“One of the greatest inventions to come along was the no-till drill. We tried one out early on and that opened our eyes to the possibility of narrow row no-till soybeans,” Kelly said. “Now that is almost the conventional way of planting beans.

“The best thing that happened with no-till corn is the Martin-Till no-till system. With the row cleaners we can open up a bare spot in the soil and without a no-till coulter we could get by with a lot less row unit down pressure. The gauge tires with the reduced inner diameter help alleviate sidewall compaction, allowing for better root growth and much better yields. The spading-closing wheels crumble the trench closed. The system gives us a seed bed that is virtually unattainable, even with tillage.”

Weed control was another initial challenge with no-till farming.

“Early on, weed control was tough, but it got better once the chemical companies got on the bandwagon with no-till,” he said. “The longer we kept our fields clean, the easier weed control got. We decided that we were better off spending money this year to keep the fields clean than trying to control the weeds that went to seed in the next year. Either you pay this year and get better yields with clean fields, or you pay extra next year when trying to make a clean crop.”

With these important lessons under their belts and success with no-till on those challenging “crawdad” fields, the no-till naysayers began to take notice.

“By the late 80s, one by one people would start showing up at the farm to ask us how this no-till thing worked,” Kelly said. “It can be a very successful system. It was very rewarding to share our experiences with others.”

In the early 1990s, Kelly began working with cover crops including annual ryegrass, cereal rye, hairy vetch, and wheat.

“We have used cereal rye and wheat mostly and it has worked well, though we did have one setback when we had problems controlling dandelion. We had to start taking care of controlling some of those weeds in the fall when we had cover crops,” he said. “I have tried annual ryegrass and it has some promise, but I haven’t had much luck getting it to overwinter.”

Today, a typical rotation on Kelly’s 1,200 acres is 40% corn and 60% soybeans and a winter cover crop following soybeans on about a third of the acres. The cover crop acres have one to two tons of poultry manure applied. Kelly is looking at different types of cover crops to try and possibly planting a cover crop after corn.

“My gut feeling is that cover crops will be more important in the future. The soil wants something growing in it all year round and cover crops can cure some of our problems. But if you plant them, you really have to step up the management,” Kelly said. “Planting cover crops is probably as big of a change in philosophy as starting no-till. It can work, but you have to want to make it work.”

The cover crops are all controlled chemically in the spring. The timing is based on the moisture levels and the crop that is being planting. Dry conditions and corn planting warrant earlier cover crop control. Soybeans and wet conditions allow for the cover crop to remain longer in the spring.

The next major challenge that Kelly sees for no-till is the increasing amount of corn residue as the crop’s productivity rises.

“No-till is a victim of its own success as some guys that have been in no-till started doing some tillage to deal with the corn residue from the higher populations and genetics,” he said. “That is my next obstacle to overcome, but there have always been obstacles for no-till and there will be more obstacles in the future. I think we have come a long way, but we still have a long ways to go.”

To address the residue problem, Kelly has been conducting some experimental strips using a McFarlane Manufacturing Reel Disk to chop up the residue, rough up the field surface, and incorporate cover crop seeds, though he is very cautious about using any type of tillage.

“I believe that no-till is making our soils better by improving soil health, which produces better yields,” he said. “We do not want to do any tillage that is not absolutely necessary, because every time we do tillage we feel like we’re taking a step backwards.”

In their decades of no-till, the Kelly’s soils have improved, organic matter has increased, earthworm populations are up and all that adds up to success in the place where it really matters – where the water meets the soil.

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