by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
WATERLOO, NY — Want healthier soil and bigger yields? Don’t till, according to Jim Hershey, president of the Pennsylvania No-Till Alliance. Hershey presented “Managing Corn in a No-Till System” at the recent Corn Congress, an event hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Hershey likes to define “no-till” as “never-till”, meaning he literally never tills.
“It takes less time, fuel and equipment,” Hershey said. “I have less soil erosion, keep nutrients on the farm and keep the water on the farm. We don’t want topsoil going down the street and off the farm.”
Not only does no-till farming help him save money, but Hershey also helps meet the environmental challenges related to farming in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
Conservation efforts in the area focus on controlling erosion and sediment, reducing nutrient loss and protecting streams and waterways. Many of the attendees who farm among the Finger Lakes would relate to Hershey’s concerns.
Since he’s not out tilling, Hershey has more time — to hunt white tail deer, he joked.
Hershey prepared his field for no-till crop production by starting with soybeans.
“Soybean stubble is ideal,” he said, “or take off first-cutting alfalfa and put corn in. Make sure the combine is spreading the residue. You may need a tool to level the field to get you into this system.”
He has tried manure injection, but wasn’t happy about the soil disturbance that resulted. Hershey said row cleaners help clear fodder out of the way for planting.
“Otherwise you won’t have even seed depth,” Hershey said. “Every spring has its challenges. You have to find a happy medium. Be careful how much growth you allow before you terminate. They’re sucking down moisture.”
He has learned that too much cover crop can be problematic, as he’ll have too much root mass. Forty to 50 pounds of cereal rye per acre is the maximum that should be planted.
“Choose the cover crop that benefits the soil to improve soil health and feed microbes that manage nutrients,” Hershey said.
He recommends cereal rye; barley, oats and radish; barley, oats and hairy vetch; and triticale, oats, crimson clover, radish and Austrian winter peas.
Though cold winters appear to kill plants, he said he has experienced radish surviving the winter.
“With a companion crop, hairy vetch will survive the winter, too,” he said.
Hershey said monitoring soil temperature is important for using a no-till system.
“Plant nothing when it’s less than 50 degrees before 10 a.m.,” Hershey said.
He said cover cropping helps keep moisture near the plants and bring in more nutrients “which we hope translates to higher yields,” he added.
Cover cropping also suppresses weeds, results in less sidewall compaction, cleaner water and more emergent plants. It also helps build organic matter.
“The soil is almost like potting soil,” Hershey said. “Each one percent of organic matter gives 22,000 gallons of water holding capacity,” he said. “I’ve worked for years to get one half of one percent increase in organic matter.”
Increasing water-holding capacity helps reduce weed press, herbicide use, crop stress and slug pressure.
Cover cropping improves microbial activity and nutrient recycling.
“When you go in with a disk or chisel plow, you disturb those worm channels and you’re blocking the flow of water and nutrients.”
He said by avoiding tilling, “the soil structure is amazing. If you had healthier soil, you’d have less need for tile drainage.”
He advised farmers wanting to start using no-till to use a grain trill after harvest.
“We harvest soybeans by Sept. 10 or 12,” Hershey said. “We plant into corn stalks, mostly cereal rye. You really need moisture to get it to sprout.”
Hershey has used high boy seeding with good success, as well as inter-seeding earlier in the summer, even as early as June. He has used for cover crop inter-seeding ryegrass, radish and crimson clover; ryegrass; cowpeas, black oats, hairy vetch, Balansa clover, radish; and ryegrass, hairy vetch, Balansa clover and radish.
“Cover crops can turn into a weed if not controlled correctly,” Hershey warned.
He said, operators need to consider how they’ll terminate the green cover after planting.
“Knock down the cover crop quickly to maximize direct sunlight to the emerging corn plant and warm the soil with more direct sunlight,” Hershey said.
Control methods could include rolling or burn down and residual herbicide.
He added that farmers should consider how the weather conditions will affect the growth and height of the cover crop.
Farmers should also ensure their planter is equipped to handle the extra residue created from the cover crop.
“Row cleaners are a must,” Hershey said. “Anything with spikes, like row cleaners and closing wheels, can create a problem with residue wrapping.”
He has used Yetter Shark Tooth row cleaners successfully, as well as smooth concave disks.
Hershey runs Hershey Farms, a 600-acre livestock and grain operation in Elizabethtown, PA. He also runs a crop management service. Hershey has been farming with no-till methods for more than 25 years and cover crop farming for 15 years. He has also worked to promote cover crop inter-seeding.