No-till tobacco benefits demonstrated

The Sinks of Davidson County, N.C. raise fluecured tobacco on the extreme edge of the Old Belt. Their practices, however, put them in the center of a short-list of producers who are finding success with no-till in tobacco. For them, it's a family affair all the way around, from the no-till implement designed on their farm to transplanting. They are among the first to demonstrate the benefits of no-till in tobacco.

“People look at me like I'm a liar when I tell them my no-till tobacco yields 3,500 to 4,500 pounds,” says Henry Sink Jr, who farms with his 84-year-old father, Henry Sink Sr., near Yadkin College, N.C.

Yields are only one of the positives he counts from the practice. There's less soil erosion, fewer chemicals, and better soil health.

“I don't want to use the term, a ‘lazy man's way’ to describe no-till,” Sink Jr. says. “But we had to look at ways to do things better at less cost. We find that no-till works well for us in tobacco.”

His father had experimented with no-till in corn as far back as 1965. Lack of proper herbicides forced him back to the plow five years later. Fast-forward to the 1990s, and the Sinks found the herbicides available which make no-till possible in tobacco.“

“My Dad was actually the one who pushed me toward no-till,” Sink Jr. says.

Before parking his plow, Sink Jr. talked with his county agent, who put him in contact with Ron Morse, Virginia Tech no-till specialist. Morse designed a no-till tobacco transplanter in the early 1990s. Sink Jr. first used the no-till transplanter in 1997. “We felt like it was something we could work with,” he says. He also used equipment built at North Carolina State.

“When the chemical Spartan became registered on tobacco, we decided to try a no-till plot,” recalls Sink Sr. Spartan was registered in 1997. “With the help of our local and state NRCS leaders and our Extension personnel, we scheduled with Ron Morse to bring their two-row no-till transplanter to our farm in 1998 and set out a one and a quarter-acre plot. North Carolina State University also brought their one-row, no-till planter and set out an acre.”

The only problem was access to the equipment at the right time. “You would have it for one day and it would rain two inches the day before,” Sink Jr. remembers.

Not to fret.

His son, Henry Sink III, who in 1999 was a third-year ag engineering student at North Carolina State, began toying with the idea of the no-till transplanter the Sinks now use.

The younger Sink adapted a Holland Rotary setter. He took a two-row bedder with parabolic shanks, and removed the disk bedder. He mounted a disk opener in front of the shank and disk coulters on each shank to keep the shanks from breaking up a wide area of soil. He then mounted a rolling cultivator tine and a drag chain to pulverize the loose soil with a DMI ripper shank and small wheels to tap down the soil prior to transplanting. The process was still a two-pass operation, and made lining up the rows difficult.

As a senior in 2000, Sink III used his ideas of developing a one-pass no-till transplanter for his senior project. Sink III now is a design engineer in John Deere's sprayer division. Modificiations to the machine continue.

The Sinks are into their third season with the adapted transplanter. The machine allows them to plant directly without bedding into the wheat stubble they use as a cover crop.

The key to the system is the cover crop, Sink Jr. says.

“A good, thick cover crop is the critical aspect,” Sink Jr. says. The Sinks opted for wheat as a cover crop. “We thought wheat would work better than rye because rye has a tendency to get away from us.” The thick cover crop keeps the weeds to a minimum.

Just prior to heading, the Sinks burn down the wheat with Gramoxone. About a week later, they'll use a lighter rate of Gramoxone and spray Spartan a couple of days before transplanting. “We don't roll the cover crop down.”

All of the fertility requirements based on a soil test are applied at transplanting beside the row. They plant NC-72. “We set tobacco flat,” Sink Jr. says. “We do not bed.”

The Sinks grow their crop under irrigation, but have noted less crusting of the soil when it does rain. “The texture allows the water to absorb into the soil because of the organic matter,” Sink Jr. says.

Before they made the switch to no-till, the Sinks would cultivate the land four or five times during the season. “My dad looked at the practice and he couldn't tell any difference in the tobacco,” Sink Jr. says. “We definitely weren't out there cultivating every week. It was better all the way around.

“If we had done no-till tobacco in the 1970s or 1980s, we would have been in trouble because we didn't have the herbicides to handle the weeds,” Sink Jr. says. “Now that we have the herbicides to do no-till tobacco, we're using less chemicals.

“We're pretty much making one pass in the field and not having to go back,” Sink Jr. says.

“I can't understand why other people haven't gone to no-till tobacco,” says the 84-year-old Henry Sink Sr. “The only moldboard plowing I do is in my garden — and I'm trying to find a way to get out of that.”

No-till tobacco transplanter modified

By Cecil H. Yancy Jr.
Farm Press Editorial Staff

When it came time for Henry Sink III to choose a senior project at North Carolina State University, he based it on observations and experiences down on the farm in Davidson County, N.C.

It was natural for him to design and build a no-till transplanter. For the first three years of his undergraduate education, Sink III had helped with his family's no-till experiment.

Drawing on experience with no-till rigs developed at North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, Sink III adapted a DMI ripper bedder and a Holland transplanter. Experience told him the shank needed to go deeper into the soil in order to help encourage extensive plant root growth, which optimizes nutrient uptake and help the plant withstand the wind. The deeper shank would also help with compaction, he thought.

The DMI shank ripped up too wide of an area, Sink III said. So, he put wheels on the back of the implement in order to press down the soil.

Today, he continues to modify the design in his spare time. He's an engineer in John Deere's Sprayer Division in Des Moines, Iowa. He's currently patenting his design.

“I'm working on it in what spare time I have after work,” Sink III said from his office in Des Moines while his father, Henry Sink Jr., his mother, Nancy, and his grandfather, Henry Sink Sr., set out the 2002 crop into wheat stubble.

“A lot of the modifications have to do with simple geometry,” Sink III said, “to allow clearance for shanks and transplanter in the wheel design.”

Sink III credits his folks with providing the interest and incentive to design and build the transplanter. All of the work was done in the shop on the Sink farm.

By the time he took the design course at North Carolina State, he had already had four years of on-farm experience with no-till.

No-till is going to be better for farmers in the short- and long-run, Sink III believes. But the biggest point isn't the equipment or the differences in how it's done. “I see the biggest breakthrough regarding no-till coming with a change of mindset,” Sink III says.

For this young man, he's seen plenty to convince him that no-till tobacco is the way to go. “Cover crop management is important,” Sink III says. “Whatever you do at the first of the season with come back 10-fold at the end of the season.”

Talking on the phone from Iowa, Sink III says he wishes he were in North Carolina. He hopes he'll be able to get back to the farm someday.

“Working for a company that helps farmers is the next best thing to being out there in the field, I suppose,” Sink III says.

“A lot of times, like my daddy and granddaddy have told me, it's not farming harder, but farming smarter,” Sink III says.

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