In agriculture, conservation-tillage is a foundational practice, but not all conservation-tillage is the same, says Lane Price, USDA-NRCS, North Carolina assistant state conservationist for technology.
In fact, in North Carolina, some farmers are getting a glimpse of things to come. The use of long-term no-till, already a cost-shared practice in EQIP, will also be an important part of the new Conservation Security Program, Price told a group of scientists at this summer’s Southern Conservation Tillage Conference for Sustainable Agriculture held in Raleigh. “It’s the concept of ‘reward the best, motivate the rest,’” Price says. Southeast Farm Press was the technical sponsor of the conference.
Currently, there are three residue practices used in North Carolina. Seasonal Residue Management, which involves planting the crop using conventional-tillage, insures that adequate residue exists to protect the soil surface during winter months. This residue is from a cover crop or from the previous crop.
Conservation-tillage, the second form of residue management, adds the practice of planting the crop using special equipment into residue, which covers at least 30 percent of the soil’s surface.
The most intensive form of residue management is called long-term no-till.
In a nutshell, it involves having a residue cover of at least 80 percent of the soil surface, and maintaining this practice for at least five consecutive years. It’s at this level that the biology of the soil starts to take on the characteristics of a forest.
“Conservation-tillage is somewhat unique in that it affects soil, water, air, plants and animals,” Price says “In addition to the obvious soil savings, it keeps water in the field where it can be used by crops.
As a district conservationist in Macon County, N.C., more than 20 years ago, Price said, “we were not nearly as knowledgeable about the benefits of conservation-tillage as we are today. In one part of the county where a lot of cabbage is grown, we were losing 200 tons of soil per acre due to the high rainfall and highly erodible soils. We put in diversions and contour rows and got their soil loss down to 15 tons per acre. Greg Hoyt (North Carolina State University horticulturist) introduced no-till vegetables to the area.
“There’s not a lot of crop situations in North Carolina that we shouldn’t be thinking about conservation-tillage,” Price says.
In the short 15 years since some form of residue management has been a requirement to participate in cost-share programs such as EQIP, conservation-tillage has become second nature to many farmers.
“We depended on conservation-tillage in the 1985 farm bill,” Price says. “That practice alone took us to an acceptable range of soil loss for many North Carolina highly erodible fields.” Conservation-tillage saves more than 1 billion tons of soil each year, Price says.
The two subsequent farm bills in 1996 and 2002 have taken the concept of conservation further.
The EQIP program indicated a shift to look at conservation in the “whole farm scenario,” Price says. “While EQIP does not cost-share on the expense of directly purchasing conservation-tillage equipment, it uses an incentive payment to get the farmer to start using long-term no-till.”
Price reports that the NRCS gets “three times the amount of applications than we have money for.” Long-term no-till is a serious commitment by the farmer, as it requires a change in the way business is done. There’s a $125 per acre incentive paid up front, Price says. The North Carolina Agricultural Cost Share Program also offers cost-share for a variety of conservation-tillage practices.
A survey in 2002 showed that farmers use some form of conservation-tillage on 36 percent of row-cropped land in North Carolina. Price notes that most of the practice is in no-till. “There are really just not a lot of crop situations in North Carolina that we shouldn’t consider conservation-tillage.”