Virginia grain grower Dave Black has been no-till farming about as long as he's been farming — and that's most of his life. The learning curve was steep, but the benefits make the journey worthwhile, he says.
Black, who farms about 1,000 acres, some of it in the fertile soil of the James River Valley, started no-tilling soybeans back in 1972, while still working with his father, George Black.
In the 1980s George gradually turned all the decision-making on the farm over to Dave. One of those decisions was to go all the way with no-till on all his corn, soybean and wheat acreage.
A handful of James River farmers, all of whom live and work in and around Charles City, Va, started the no-till movement that has grown statewide. The original farmers included Dave Black, his cousin Jon Black, David Hula and Fred Browning. At about the same time, Heinrico County farmer Randolph Aigner began no-tilling all his crop land and, along with the James River farmers, has become something of a no-till guru among central Virginia farmers.
“When we started planting all our crops no-till we didn't have many sources of information and no equipment built specifically for our no-till conditions. We had to adapt some of the conventional equipment we had on the farm.
“Under those conditions, you could guess we made a lot of mistakes — I guess you could say our learning curve was fairly steep,” Black says with a smile. “Now, we try to help other growers, who are just getting into no-till, to not make some of the mistakes we made,” he concludes.
“The first thing anyone considering going into no-till farming is to make a commitment to it. If a grower is going to try it for three or four years and go back to conventional tillage, he should never start. It will take a few years to see any long-term benefit from no-till and there will likely be some yield drag along the way, Black says.
“The next thing anyone making a long-term commitment to no-till should do is get their land level. You don't want to wait until you've been in it four or five years, because you are beginning to see some benefits. Going back in to level fields at that point is going to send you a couple of steps backwards,” he adds.
Black says there is enough information and equipment available now that most folks should be able to get into no-till corn and soybean production fairly easily. No-till wheat, he says, is a little bit different.
Stand is always an issue for no-till wheat, he stresses. “We plant early and we compensate for reduced stand with higher seeding rates. Finding the right combination of planting date, seeding rate and depth, and fertility are critical to avoid yield drag on no-till wheat,” Black says.
“Until we got the planter right and the seeding rates right, we did see some yield drag on our no-till wheat.” However, in recent years, Black says wheat yields have stabilized and have gradually improved as the organic matter and overall soil quality improved from years of no-till farming.
Though not cosmetically appealing, Black says he gets better wheat yields when planting directly into corn stalks. If you use Bt-containing hybrids, he adds, there isn't much advantage to chopping corn stalks when you combine the corn. You can come back when you're ready to plant wheat and you will have just as many stalks, he says.
“I don't know why the stalks from Bt-containing corn varieties don't rot. My guess is that Bt keeps insects out of the corn, which prevents fungus from developing and breaking down the corn stalks. For us, leaving the corn stalks has not been a bad thing,” he adds.
On the one hand, he says, you have healthy stalks to deal with when you plant wheat. “On the other hand, you don't have as much disease pressure in your wheat.”
Black says he has not had a significant problem with stink bugs or other insects routinely controlled by pyrethroid or organo-phosphate insecticides, which are not needed in Bt crops.
‘We have had some increase in wire worms, and in some fields white grubs, but overall, Bt technology has been a good thing for my no-till system,” Black says.
Though all his crops have benefited from long-term no-till, the Virginia grower says the most dramatic advantage probably comes in soybeans. Getting wheat out and double-crop beans in is always a challenge, and he contends he can plant beans when conventional growers cannot.
“Typically, we can get a two-inch rain and two days later we can get in the field with a sprayer. Or, we can plant in dry weather, because our soil holds water so much better than conventionally-tilled land,” he says.
“Timing on double-crop soybeans is critical and there is absolutely no doubt that long-term no-till provides us with big benefits when it comes to soybean planting,” he stresses.
One downside to no-till farming can be weed management. Black says there will always be issues with residual herbicides. For this reason, in 2008, he planted Roundup Ready corn. “Roundup Ready corn and glyphosate give us an economic advantage over the herbicide program we have been using,” he explains.
We grow some seed soybeans and we know switching to Roundup Ready corn will present some challenges on down the road. It's just another obstacle we have to figure out, he says.
Black says he is concerned about herbicide resistance, though it hasn't been a problem with glyphosate. “We use 2,4-D with our glyphosate applications, and it seems to make both products work better. Hopefully, it will help us avoid some of the resistance problems farmers farther south are facing with glyphosate resistance,” he says.
“My biggest concern is Italian ryegrass resistance to glyphosate. We use Osprey and Hoelon in addition to glyphosate. We are hoping the rotation of herbicide families will prevent resistance to any one of the herbicides,” Black adds.
If the proof is truly in the pudding, then Dave Black is a perfect example of how long-term no-till crops pay off.
On his river land, wheat yields are consistently in the 85 bushel per acre range and 70-75 bushels per acre on his upland fields. For corn, river land yields are routinely in the 150 bushel per acre range, compared to 125 bushels per acre on his off-river land. Soybeans, he says consistently produce 35-38 bushels per acre, regardless of the field location.
“We are still learning about no-till — no doubt about that,” Black says. “For example, every three years we spread about five tons of dry material from sludge from three sites, all within 30 miles of the farm. We have no problems with it — soil and water people have no problem with it.”
“We don't work it into the soil. So, when people say we have to till our soil because we are applying animal waste, I say no you don't. This is the third cycle we've used it, and we now have no problems with it. The only past problem was with lime stabilization, so we had to go to a non-lime stabilizer to solve that problem.”
We apply 60 pounds of nitrogen 2×2 in the row, along with sulphur, boron and any other micronutrients we need and that's it. We get about 150 pounds of nitrogen from the sludge. Phosphate content of the spreading material is high enough to compensate for naturally low levels.”
The sludge application has contributed significantly to high organic matter of the soil on Black's long-term, no-till fields. Getting the organic matter in the soil high is a real key to building soil quality, he says.
Wheat, corn and soybeans grown no-till have been an ideal breeding ground for an increase in sucking bug problems, but Black says long-term that has not been a problem on his farm. If conditions are right, he says, he gets the same buildups of insects as conventional growers.
Long-term no-till farming has been a good ride for David Black. Being the center of attention at field days and farmer meetings fits his outgoing personality. He believes in what he's doing with tillage and is always ready to share his experiences with other farmers.