Brazilian preaches, teaches conservation-tillage benefits

Franke Dijkstra has always been a revolutionary. His ancestors had been dairy farmers in Holland for more than 500 years until he — literally — broke new ground, choosing to raise row crops instead.

Twenty-six years ago, the Dutch-born producer also became one of only three farmers in Brazil to adopt no-till farming practices, even though neighboring farmers initially thought he was nuts.

“When I first began doing no-till, everyone thought I was crazy,” he says. “But I've always liked doing something different.”

Dijkstra saw plenty of reasons to try no-till - first and foremost because of heavy rainfall, a constant presence in Parana, Brazil, where he farms.

“In the past, my average soil loss (from rain) was 30 tons a hectare (about 13 tons an acre),” Dijkstra recalls. “I've even seen some instances where 300 or 400 tons go down the river with one rain.”

He also remembers how heavy rains washed away tilled soil, leaving his soybean plants leaning in fields like the Tower of Pisa.

Faced with these challenges, Dijkstra was convinced conservation-tillage was the only way to go. But that's not to say he didn't encounter his share of problems adapting to the new technique.

“We hadn't yet mastered the program, and no-till often seemed a lot like no telling,” he recalls with a chuckle.

After three years, Dijkstra began experimenting with cover crops, based on research showing their green-manure value. In time, Dijkstra began to see the differences he could make through crop rotation and using cover crops in the winter. He also began appreciating these cover crops, not only for the green-manure value they provided but also for the role they played in protecting the soil.

“It changed everything,” as he recalls.

Black oats, he learned, provided excellent covering with good weed control and rooting. On the other hand, legumes, which provided nitrogen, failed to provide sufficient protection to the soil because the rapid decomposition of their residue. But he also learned that grass crops increased soil nitrogen and residue and organic matter.

Dijkstra currently double-crops soybeans and wheat as well as corn and wheat. He also maintains a rotation of 50 percent corn and 50 percent soybeans in the summer and 50 percent oats and 50 percent wheat in the winter.

Three years after adopting no-till, Dijkstra could see his efforts paying off in other ways, especially in the levels of organic matter returned to the soil.

When Dijkstra first cleared native grasslands in 1964 under a conventional-tillage system, the soil consisted of about 3.5 to 4 percent organic matter. However, after 12 years of soybean planting under conventional-tillage, those levels had declined to between 1.8 and 2.2 percent.

Within only 10 years of planting no-till, organic matter jumped to 5 percent.

Yields also have improved dramatically. Corn posted the most dramatic gains — a factor, Dijkstra says, was helped along by steady improvements in corn varieties. Soybean yields also grew consistently until 1991, but reached a plateau of about 30 bushels an acre — a slowdown he attributes to a decline in the introduction of new varieties. Since 1991, however, yields have increased to about 49 bushels an acre.

As one of the principal pioneers of conservation-tillage in Brazil, Dijkstra has become something of a flying Dutchman, traveling throughout Latin America and the United States to share his extensive knowledge of no-till techniques.

Dijkstra's farm also has been a frequent stop for many Southern farmers, researchers and Extension professionals who are working to improve conservation-tillage systems in the United States. Recently, Dijkstra shared his experiences with no-till farming at the 25th Annual Southern Conservation-Tillage Conference for Sustainable Agriculture, held June 24-25 at Auburn University.

“Franke has a message for all of us,” says Paul Mask, an Alabama Extension agronomist who has toured Dijkstra's farm. “He never took ‘no’ for an answer, despite all of the conventional wisdom of the time.

“I think that is a lesson for all of us here in the United States. We simply can't say, ‘it won't work.’ We will have to adapt our research to make it work. Fortunately, our farmers, like Franke, are making it work.”

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