University of Kentucky tobacco extension specialists have partnered with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to promote conservation tillage to tobacco farmers.
Conservation tillage in tobacco has been around for a while. Much of the initial research was conducted by researchers in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, but it wasn’t readily adopted by a large number of growers.
“With conservation tillage, you’re asking growers to make a big investment in equipment, and until they see it work on their land or their neighbor’s property, they are hesitant to adopt it,” said Bob Pearce, UK extension tobacco specialist. “What the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife is doing is helping get this research out to the growers.”
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources received an environmental grant from Altria to help their contract growers adopt the practices. Fish and wildlife environmental scientists Jon Anderson and Brad Brown are providing technical assistance, education and equipment for farmers statewide to grow small plots of no-till tobacco. Since the program began in 2012, Anderson and Brown have worked with more than 100 growers of burley and dark tobacco and have implemented conservation tillage production on more than 800 acres of tobacco in the state.
“A lot of the benefit of no-till agriculture is building soil health,” Brown said. “Other benefits include saved topsoil, reduced erosion, lower weed pressure, more organic matter, improved soil structure, cleaner tobacco and the same yields with fewer inputs.”
The goal of the on-farm small plots is to show farmers the advantages of no-till production. Some are already noticing.
“Several growers have mentioned to me that, even though we’ve had so much rain this growing season, they don’t have near the washouts and ditches in their no-till plots as they do in their conventional tilled fields,” Brown said.
Pearce and UK’s dark tobacco extension specialist Andy Bailey are working with Anderson and Brown to collect publishable research data for the project, particularly on cover crops’ capacity to improve or maintain soil productivity. Research has suggested mixtures consisting of different types of cover crops have greater benefits than the typical small grain cover crops historically used by tobacco growers. While mixtures have the potential to improve soil health and quality, their benefits have not been well documented in tobacco production systems.