When Randolph Aigner started growing grain crops in a no-tillage system in Virginia's Middle Peninsula his farm neighbors thought he was crazy. That was more than 20 years ago, and now farmers throughout the region want to know how he does it.
Aigner, whose family has been farming the same land for more than 100 years says the take home message from all those years in no-till is improved soil quality. Improving organic matter in the soil, he contends, helps him grow high yielding crops with much less fertilizer, especially nitrogen, than conventional-tillage systems.
His fields also handle heavy rains and long droughts much better than conventionally tilled soil, he says. Whether his no-till heritage helped his wheat withstand the snow and record cold of an Easter drought, he's not sure. The experts say added moisture in the soil played a role in reducing freeze damage in his wheat. “We won't know the full extent of any freeze damage, but it looks like our wheat escaped severe damage — the heads look like they will be okay.”
When he bought the first planter in early 1970s that would plant into wheat stubble, he had no idea he would become a no-till pioneer, nor that all his farm would eventually go from no-till to never-till. Since the mid-1980s, every acre he farms has been no-till.
“Killing the wheat was a big problem when we started no-till, because that was long before Roundup Ready technology was available. The first over-the-top herbicide we used was Tenoran, and it killed everything — soybeans included,” he laughs.
When Roundup came out, he was one of the first to try it as a burndown material for wheat. At that time he says johnsongrass was a big problem throughout the Middle Peninsula of Virginia. Since glyphosate became popular, johnsongrass is no longer a factor in weed control.
The important thing in no-till is killing the vegetation ahead of your crop, whether that be wheat, corn, soybeans. On corn land, he applies paraquat in March, then comes back with atrazine at planting and that usually takes care of vegetative growth, he says. The rate of atrazine he uses on corn, he says, is comparable to the rate used on conventionally-tilled corn.
He says glyphosate is a valuable tool in no-tillage farming. “We work every year to prevent resistance from happening. For example, we don't use any Roundup Ready corn. Using atrazine in the corn further breaks up the cycle of using glyphosate,” he adds.
In the long-term, we have found fewer and fewer weed problems. Part of the reason, he contends, is keeping the land clean. When land is tilled, seed are brought to the surface, creating an ongoing source of weeds. Aigner says not working the land for so many years has taken out this continuous seed source, and he says, has dramatically reduced weed pressure.
Over the years no-till farming has allowed him to get marginal land into full production. “The overwhelming benefit of no-till farming is soil quality, he says. Pointing to a field of pristine wheat, Aigner says the field was once a big mud puddle. “When we tilled this land, in some years we never cut soybeans because it was so wet. Over the years, the soil quality built up and the soil acquired the ability to handle the water,” he says.
Years of no-till farming have improved the quality of his land so much that he uses an incredibly low amount of nitrogen, compared to the high yields he gets from his crops. Before no-tilling, he says, he always had to apply the maximum amount of nitrogen, based on soil tests. Now, in some years he doesn't use any nitrogen in the spring and produces better than 90 bushels of wheat per acre.
Typically, he puts out 30-40 pounds of nitrogen in the fall. On most of his land, he comes back with another 30-40 pounds of nitrogen, but in some fields, tissue samples show he needs no nitrogen — a huge savings in an era of skyrocketing nitrogen costs. “We feel like we save about 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year on all our wheat acreage,” Aigner says.
Double-crop soybeans follow wheat with no nitrogen. The following spring he comes back with a pound of nitrogen per expected bushel per acre yield of corn. So, his two-year, three crop rotation often requires less than 200 pounds per acre of nitrogen.
In 1996, Aigner points out he produced over 200 bushels of corn per acre, but still only used the 150 pounds of nitrogen. He has no irrigation on his land, making the value of water retention even more valuable. No-till farming is not a magic bullet for drought prevention, he stresses, but there is no doubt long-term, no tilled land will hold water better, Aigner insists.
Researchers at Virginia Tech came to his farm and checked his fields for disease pressure and found no difference between his fields and conventionally-tilled wheat, corn and soybeans. “We don't see any difference in insect damage. If we get an insect problem, it seems to be just as much a problem for conventional and no-tillage fields alike,” he says.
Over the years, Aigner says, he couldn't even begin to calculate how much money he has saved in diesel fuel. “If you consider in the old days, we chisel plowed, disked and incorporated Treflan, Sutan, Eradicane and other materials — It would be a huge savings. If you pay $3 per gallon for diesel fuel, the savings on fuel would be enormous,” he adds.
Add to that the cost of chisel plows, cultivators and size of tractors needed to pull these heavy implements and the costs for conventional-tillage just keep adding up, he says. Aigner points out that a John Deere 5410 is the biggest tractor he uses in his operation. “All we need is something big enough to pull the drill and the planter,” he says.
Extended no-till has had some unexpected benefits, according to the Virginia farmer. “Our wheat yields got so high over the years we had trouble planting back into the heavy straw left behind when the wheat was harvested. We began baling the wheat straw and found there to be a big market for it. Now, it's an integral part of our farming operation,” he says.
“We bale the wheat straw and sell it to landscape companies for ditches, yards, anywhere there is open ground,” he says. Getting the wheat straw off makes planting easier and provides additional income for Aigner and provides relatively low cost mulch for landscape companies and home owners.
Though he modestly scoffs at being THE pioneer of no-tillage farming in Virginia's Middle Peninsula, Aigner is an outspoken proponent. “I can't think of a negative for no-tillage in grain production,” he concludes.