Extension Ag Update
January/February 2007
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No-Till Tops Conventional Tillage for First Time Ever in Illinois

Doug Peterson; dgpeters@uiuc.edu; (217) 333-9444

Conventional tillage is no longer so conventional.  For the first time ever, the percentage of cropland planted with no-till has surpassed conventional tillage in Illinois, according to the 2006 Soil Erosion and Crop Tillage Survey. No-till rose to 33.1 percent of all Illinois land planted with corn, soybeans, and small grains, while conventional tillage dropped to 31.2 percent, said Alan Gulso of the Illinois Department of Agriculture. With no-till, the land is left undisturbed from harvest through planting, preserving a canopy of crop residue on the surface to protect the soil from the battering impact of erosion. With conventional tillage, much of the crop residue is buried during tillage, leaving less than 15 percent of the surface covered with residue.

The dominance of no-till “is a true milestone,” said Bob Frazee, University of Illinois Extension natural resources educator. He still recalls the days in the 1970s and 80s, when no-till was just catching hold and “many people called it a passing fad. Many felt it was never going to play out.”  Even as recently as 1994, when the state’s tillage survey was first conducted, conventional tillage was as high as 46.1, with no-till far behind at 22.7 percent.  Frazee and Gulso both attributed the turnaround primarily to gains in no-till soybeans, which also reached a milestone in 2006. For the first time in Illinois history, the acres of no-till soybeans surpassed the 50-percent mark, reaching 51 percent. As Gulso noted, with 10 million total acres planted in soybeans in Illinois that means more than 5 million acres are no-till.

In addition to the soil conservation benefits, Frazee said that “economics is driving this transformation. With escalating fuel prices, more and more farmers are pushing the pencil and realizing that no-till is the way to go.”  By cutting out tillage passes, farmers reduce both fuel and labor expenses. But what is also making a difference for no-till soybeans, he added, is the tremendous move toward Roundup-ready soybeans, which provides excellent weed control in no-till systems.

In 2006, Frazee said 90 percent of Illinois farmers planted Roundup-ready soybeans, a jump from roughly 64 percent in 2001. “It’s just snowballed,” he said.  The 2006 Transect Survey also showed that no-till corn continued to lag well behind no-till soybeans, although no-till did record some modest gains, reaching 16.7 percent of the corn land in Illinois.

The problem all along for no-till corn has been the cool, wet conditions in the spring, which can stunt the crop’s early-season growth and development. Heavy crop residue makes for a cooler, wetter seedbed, and this poses a big problem for corn, which is planted much earlier than soybeans. However, Frazee and Gulso still see reason for optimism for no-till corn. Strip-till corn, a form of no-till, is gaining interest across the state. As Frazee explained, strip-till preserves all of the crop residue, except for a narrow strip in which the seed is planted. Mounds are created in this narrow strip during fertilizer application in the fall, creating a warmer, drier seedbed and solving the main obstacle to no-till corn.

The tillage survey was a cooperative effort among the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the state’s soil and water conservation districts. Surveyors tracked tillage trends at 50,000 points in 100 of the state’s 102 counties, with Cook and Lake counties the only ones not included.  It’s certainly significant that no-till soybeans went over 50 percent and that total no-till topped conventional tillage for the first time, Gulso said. But as he went on to say, “What we’re even more interested in seeing is that the trend toward no-till is continuing to increase. Milestones are important, but the overall trend is even more important.”