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Published November 11, 2013, 10:29 AM

Interest grows in tillage

A wet cycle and more corn acres helped cause the increase.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

John Nowatzki remembers driving from Jamestown, N.D., to Cavalier, N.D., a trip of about 180 miles in central North Dakota, on a November afternoon in 2012.

Along the way, Nowatzki, the North Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural machine systems specialist, saw fewer than 10 fields that hadn’t been tilled in some way. Once, not that long ago, at least half those fields would have been tilled, he says.

What he saw that day is part of a statewide trend, he says.

“Farmers are doing more tillage than they used to,” Nowatzki says.

Though hard numbers are tough to come by, increased tillage is reflected in strong sales of tillage equipment in the Upper Midwest, dealers and ag officials say.

Much of the credit, of course, goes to generally healthy farm profits, which allows farmers to update their machinery, including tillage equipment. But other factors, most notably the region’s long wet cycle and changes in cropping patterns, have boosted tillage equipment sales, too, officials say.

“We have been wetter than normal for nearly the past 20 years. That increased moisture has resulted in less no-till. Farmers are finding they feel they need to till, both in the spring and fall, to dry things out,” Nowatzki says.

Corn’s rising popularity in the region also is a factor.

North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 3.9 million acres of corn this year, up from 1.45 million acres in 2013, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers in northwest Minnesota and Montana are planting more corn, too.

“They are looking for equipment that will handle that corn stalk residue,” says John Swenseth, of High Plains Equipment in Devils Lake, N.D., and a board member and past chairmen of the North Dakota Implement Dealers Association.

Tillage equipment also is helpful in breaking up farmland coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program, he says.

The improving quality and durability of tillage equipment is a factor, too, he says.

“Everything seems to be heavier and easier to work on. It’s easier to replace something if you do have some breakage,” Swenseth says.

Nowatzki also points out that healthy farm profits in recent years have made farmers more willing to buy fuel. Historically, producers have cut back on tillage to reduce fuel costs.

“I find farmers are less interested in savings from fuel costs, which encourages more tillage,” Nowatzki says.

There are skeptics

Some area agriculturalists question the wisdom of more tillage.

“I think a lot of the tillage is recreational. They’re doing it just because they want to do something and haven’t thought it out past that,” says Chris Rohde, a New Town, N.D., farmer and president of the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association.

“I still haven’t seen any research that shows the tillage actually pays,” he says.

Some “poorly designed” research purportedly shows the advantages of tillage over no-till, but such research isn’t based on a full, accurate portrayal of no-till farming practices, he says.

Rohde says tilling will be discussed at the association’s annual workshop and trade event Jan. 6 to 8 in Minot, N.D. A session on “Soil Compaction: Is There a Role for Vertical Tillage” is slated for 2:15 p.m. on Jan. 6, according to the event’s agenda.

More information: www.mandakze rotill.org.

General suggestions

Historically, Nowatzki’s ag machine systems specialist position has promoted reduced tillage. Though he still sees the value of less tillage, he also recognizes that many farmers today see a need for more, he says.

Nowatzki says county extension agents are asking him for more information on tillage, a sure sign of farmers’ rising interest in the practice.

He offers these general suggestions for farmers interested in expanding their use of tillage:

• Make sure you need tillage equipment before you buy it.

• Consider equipment that will minimize soil compaction.

• Consider strip-till, or the practice of tilling only the portions of a field that will be used for the seed bed.

• Remember that if you use tile drainage, there’s less need to dry out the soil with tillage. Farmers who install tile drainage should consider no-till or strip-till on those fields.

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