Switching to No-Till

On some farms this season’s harvesting proved very successful, while on others the drought interfered with expected results. Does the No-Till technology help to overcome the problem of acute shortage of moisture for plants?

By Willie Drews, doctor of agronomy, adviser to the EkoNiva-Tekhnika Holding

Each year, around 105 million ha across the world are seeded using the No-Till technology and the trend for its wider employment on a larger scale is obvious.

In Russia, there are no reliable statistics about the areas seeded using the No-Till technology, but each region has its committed adherents as well as staunch adversaries. Each of them has his weighty arguments and is reluctant to give up his convictions. So, why did the No-Till technology strike root on the American and Australian continents but is a cause of acute debates in Europe and Russia?

Global areas sown using No-Till technology and their distribution by continents, % 

Continents

Area, ha

Distribution, %

South America

49,579,000

46.8

North America

40,074,000

37.8

Australia and New Zealand

12,162,000

11.5

Asia

2,530,000

2.3

Europe

1,150,000

1.1

Africa

368,000

0.3

World total

105,863,000

100

Source: Derpsch & Friedrich, 2008

Switching to the No-Till technology necessitates rethinking the theory of tilling, crop rotation, plant protection and equipment selection. The farmers of the New World, where the vast areas of uncultivated land were in difficult climatic conditions, pioneered this new method.

The No-Till technology displayed a number of advantages:

- low cost per 1 ha of surface area and higher equipment performance;

- economical consumption of soil moisture;

- dramatic reduction of wind and water erosion.

Global experience has showed that in Russia, too, the No-Tell technology took root in areas with scarce moisture supply, where it stabilises the harvest.

Over several years, EkoNiva has closely cooperated with the farms of Krasnozyorsky district, Novosibirsk oblast. The region is characterised by an acute moisture shortage. The No-Till technology has been used there for 7 to 10 years.

One of the first farms to introduce it was the Rubin LLC. Yegor Kin, the farm head, is pleased with the harvest even in the most unfavourable years.

“For the droughty Kulundin zone, the No-Till technology is the best possible option that maximally preserves the moisture and restores the humus substance of the soil,” says Yegor Kin. “The technology has been introduced along with the JD 1895 seeder. Each year I assure myself that we made the right choice. In the six year period, the machines have justified our expectations. On average, we harvest over 32,000 tonnes of grain. Wheat productivity is 2.7 tonnes per hectare. On some fields, it exceeds 3 tonnes.”

Following this farm, the technology was taken up by the IP Vais individual enterprise and ZAO Novomaiskoye CJSC.

The specifics to be taken into account in switching to the No-Till technology:

1. A strict approach to crop selection in seeding rotation. The absence of fully fallow land in the seeding rotation process makes the change of crops essential:
- monocotyledonous cereals to be followed by dicotyledonous types (leguminous plants and crucifers);
- heat-loving plants (maize, soya) to be followed by frost-resistant types (winter crops and spring wheat).

The typical elements of the seeding rotation are: peas – winter wheat, spring rape – spring wheat, annual herbs – winter wheat. Such a rotation prevents weed build-up, plant disease and pest development on the sown areas.

2. Much attention must be given to removing the previous crops:
- cutting height from 10 to 30 cm (the higher the better, up to 40 cm in the case of maize);
- straw crushing from 1 to 5 cm;
- careful straw distribution over the entire reaper width.

Carefully distributed crop residues build up on the soil surface. They cover the soil like a sponge, protecting it against over-heating and drying. At the same time they let the moisture through to the lower layers for the root system.

3. Radical change of the mineral feed mode:
- phosphorous and potassium fertilisers are introduced only into rows simultaneously with seeding;
- nitrogen fertilisers are introduced either with seeds or as liquid by sprayers along with herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

4. A mandatory agricultural technique is the use of total action herbicides (glyphosate group) on the fields with early harvest crops. The weed species composition changes:
- contamination by root sprouting weeds is reduced (due to soil compaction);
- the number of cereal weeds grows, which necessitates using costlier anti-cereal herbicides.

5. The No-Till equipment package is dramatically reduced. Primary importance goes to selection of a seeding machine with a disk or anchor coulter.

The anchor coulter, widely used in Canada and the US, puts the seeds in the slot cleaned from plant residues, which is essential for fine seed crops. The best example of this seeder is the Seed Hawk machine form Vaderstad of Sweden.

In Russia, like in South America, seeding machines fitted with a disk coulter became particularly popular. They follow the terrain better, operate at higher speeds, and cut only a narrow slot in the soil for seed and fertiliser introduction. The special feature of the seeder is that in case of poor crushing and distribution of crop residues the coulter is unable to cut them and to press the straw into soil. Under such circumstances, the seeds can deposit on “the straw cushion”, which reduces the sprouting of rape and other fine seed crops.

According to the Russian adherents of the No-Till technology, the John Deere 1895 seeder is the best machine for this job.

Seeding by No-Till technology using the John Deere 1895 seederA seeder with an operating width of 9.1 to 13.1 m links up with an 8.8 to 15.2 cubic metre capacity pneumatic trailer. This consists of 2 or 3 bins, one for seeds and one or two sections for nitrogen and phosphorous-potassium fertilisers. The crop seeds are sown after each 25.4 cm into a coulter with phosphorous-potassium fertilisers, whereas preset batches of nitrogen fertilisers are laid into the front row after each 50.8 cm.

A prerequisite for introduction of the No-Till technology is availability on the farm of a sprayer capable of thoroughly and quickly treating all the sown areas. Along with towed sprayers, the John Deere series 4730, 4830 and 4930 self-propelled sprayers are very popular. Their special feature is high speed operation during which the boom is steadily maintained at the same height. One sprayers treats 500 ha per day.

John Deere self-propelled sprayers quickly and carefully introduce liquid crop protection compounds and fertilisers. On farms switching to the No-Till technology, the role of solution-carrying equipment is growing significantly. These stations are used to prepare operating liquids for sprayers. It is important to add 10 to 20 kg of the operating substance of nitrogen fertilisers to the work solution and to introduce it on 1 ha together with crop protection compounds in each pass of the sprayer. The 46% carbamide becomes dissolved. Nitrogen, in solution form, is actively absorbed by the leaves, thus contributing to plant growth.

No-Till is a fairly new and rapidly developing technology. It would be unreasonable to blindly transfer all the technological operations from one zone to another. The factors to be taken into account are the specifics of soil, its propensity to compaction, climatic features, soil freezing, and the variety of weeds, pests and diseases that may affect the technology and necessitate a prompt response. This technology does not admit of unchangeable routines and calls for a well-considered scientific approach. Whoever is prepared to live in harmony with nature can boldly start experimenting with No-Till.