Farmer Experiences with No-Till Corn and Cover Cropping

Katie O’Brien, UMaine summer student worker
Ellen Mallory, UMaine Extension

At the 2018 Maine Dairy Seminar, four experienced no-till growers discussed why they use no-till and cover crops, some of the associated challenges, and their tips for getting started. UMaine Extension’s Rick Kersbergen started the session with an overview. A video of the full session is posted on the UMaine Extension Soil Health website. Here we provide the highlights.

To watch the video and find other no-till and cover cropping resources, visit https://extension.umaine.edu/agriculture/soil-health/

Overview of Benefits and Challenges of No-Till and Cover Cropping
Rick Kersbergen, UMaine Cooperative Extension

Benefits

  • Saves fuel and time because of fewer passes and no rock picking
  • Improves soil health
  • Improves water infiltration and availability
  • Reduces runoff and erosion
  • Cover crops provide crop rotation that benefits corn

Challenges

  • Weed control
  • Manure cannot be incorporated, but cover crops help retain nutrients
  • Soil ruts and wheel tracks persist
  • Short window after corn harvest to establish cover crops. Interseeding is used by some.

Farmer Panel
Perry Lilley, Lilley Farms, Houlton
No-tills about 600 acres per year (250 corn, 100 barley, 150 soybeans, and 30-50 alfalfa)

Robert Fogler, Stonyvale Farms, Exeter
No-tills almost 2000 acres per year (1000 corn, 500 alfalfa, and 300-400 timothy)

Penny and Jeff Stevens, Wind Gate Farm, Knox
No-till 180 acres per year (150 corn and 30 alfalfa)

Why No Till?
“I’m focused on soil health… especially water infiltration and stopping erosion. That is really the key to me.” – Robert Fogler

  • Soil health
  • Better water drainage and infiltration
  • No rock picking
  • Being able to grow corn on ledgey ground

No-Till Planters
“It doesn’t take a new planter.  There’s all sorts of equipment out there that you can add to these old planters and make them work.” – Perry Lilley

  • Maintenance is extremely important. Seed opener discs need to be set up correctly and they need to be sharp to penetrate the soil!
  • The longer you no-till, the easier it is to penetrate the soil because soil health improves.

Cover Cropping with No Till
“We’re in the worm feeding business with our cover crops. It’s not for erosion control, it’s for feeding worms (and the million other soil critters).” – Robert Fogler

The farmers use a variety of methods:

  • No-till drilling or broadcasting winter rye immediately following corn silage harvest
  • Interseeding cover crop mixes into standing corn, either with an air-type seeder or by helicopter or airplane
  • Interseeding Italian ryegrass into barley at planting

Manure Spreading with No Till
“You have to get over the mindset that manure has to be incorporated.  I don’t like to put it on bare ground. I like to put it on ground with cover crop or some residue … to help soak some of those nutrients up.” – Perry Lilley

The farmers have noticed that manure soaks into worm holes and root channels, but they do need to avoid putting on too much at once to avoid drowning out worms, and to spread it evenly to prevent getting clumps drying out on the soil surface.

Advice for New No-Tillers
“Don’t be afraid!  It’s gonna work so go out and do it.” – Jeff Stevens
“But at the same time, be aware. You’re going to have to check your corn (seeding depth) and you’re going to have to rotate your fields. ” – Penny Stevens

Key practices

  1. Weed control. Your sprayer becomes your tillage tool. You need to be on top of your weeds because they can get away from you in a hurry. Roundup ready corn is very helpful when starting out no-till, as preliminary tilling would usually be the first weed killing effort of the season and with no-till you don’t get that.
  2. Cover crops. If you don’t rotate with perennial sod you need cover crops to give you the soil health that makes no-till work.
  3. Good soil to seed contact, which requires a good, patient seeder operator. “I think the biggest think you need to do is to get out of the tractor and make sure that seed is where you want it.” – Perry Lilley

 

Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the farmers for participating on this panel. This summary and a video of the panel was made possible with funding from Northeast SARE project SNE17-07.