No-till: the global revolution in farming

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Figure 1 Bar graph showing extent of no-tillage adoption worldwide 2004-05

As a relatively young farming system, no-till is still evolving, but there is a solid framework of existing knowledge growers can draw upon by Rohan Rainbow

No-till farming has been part of the evolution of Australian graingrowing - some say a revolution in the way we can produce more grain with less physical effort, less fuel and less erosion.

Successful implementation of no-till farming demands proper preparation, attention to detail and high-level management skills. However, the pay-offs can be big.

It is a relatively young farming system, still evolving as a farming practice though widely adopted by farmers in Australia and overseas.

At the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture held in Kenya in 2005, it was reported that farmers are showing increased interest in no-tillage and the technology is being applied to more than 95 million hectares worldwide. The countries with the largest areas under no-till are the US, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia and Paraguay. These six countries all have adoption areas above one million hectares (see Figure 1).

Source: 1) JOHN HASSEL, CTIC, 2005; 2) FEBRAPDP, 2005; 3) AAPRESID, 2004; 4) DR DOUG McKELL, SOIL CONSERVATION COUNCIL OF CANADA, 2004; 5) BILL CRABTREE, WANTFA, 2005 6) DR PETER HOBBS & RAJ GUPTA 2005; 7) MAG - DEAG, SOIL CONSERVATION PROGRAM, 2005; 8) CARLITO LOS, 2005; 9) RICHARD FOWLER, 2003; 10) ECAF HOMEPAGE, 2005; 11) RAFAEL E PEREZ, 2004; 12) MIGUEL CARBALLAL, AUSID, 2005; 13) ECAF HOMEPAGE, 2005; 14) CARLOS CROVETTO, 2005; 15) FABIO LEIVA, 2005; 16) LI HONGWEN, 2005; (*) PRELIMINARY INFORMATION BASED ON 40% OF DATA COLLECTION FOR 2003-04; (**) INCLUDES FOUR COUNTRIES IN SOUTH ASIA, INDIA, PAKISTAN, BANGLADESH AND NEPAL

In Australia, the large-scale beginnings of no-till were in the WA grainbelt in the 1990s, and today more than 85 per cent of WA"s grain is produced under a no-till system.

No-till adoption has also increased rapidly in other states in Australia. Some farmers have been practising no-till since the 1970s, but it has become more universal with improvements in herbicide technology, changes to seeding equipment and through a greater knowledge of weed population dynamics.

Tillage can have a deleterious impact on soil health because it breaks down soil aggregate size and can cause soil compaction. As soil aggregate size becomes finer, the soil is more prone to wind and water erosion and water infiltration levels are reduced. Tillage can also have detrimental effects on soil micro-organism populations.

Differences between no-till and other crop sowing systems are:

Improvements to the sowing system should result in better crop establishment, improved nutrientuse efficiency, increased herbicide-use options and improved herbicide efficacy.

The use of press wheels, seed row placement or banding of fertiliser (rather than broadcasting) and use of the low-cost herbicide trifluralin at higher rates are good examples of what can be used to reduce risk in a no-till system.

No-till has allowed farmers to intensify cropping on their farms because fallowing is not involved. Crop and variety choices need to take into account any threats from disease and weeds.

Rotational plans do not necessarily have to change under no-till, although those new to sowing canola by no-till should seek advice from the more experienced.

Sowing pulse crops and canola into stubble has greatly reduced the risk of erosion, particularly in lower-rainfall areas.

Generally, seeding rates are higher in no-till as growers seek to suppress weed germination and growth through greater crop competition.

The compatibility between livestock and no-till is subject to debate. Certainly, heavy grazing post-harvest means less cover and more land prone to erosion as well as the burial of weed seeds. Yet many no-till farmers are successfully grazing livestock in a no-till system. In drier years, no-till has enabled stock to be left in paddocks for much longer with safety against soil erosion, because of the stubble.

Using controlled traffic and precision agriculture systems such as auto-steer on a farm can capitalise on improved paddock traffic and avoid the problems for crop growth caused by soil compaction.

In planning to start a no-till farming system, five key areas need to be addressed:

Farmers contemplating the change from multiple tillage or minimum tillage should plan for it to occur initially on part of their property, for example in paddocks to be cropped to one class of cereal or pulse. It is easier to no-till in a crop-on-crop situation, rather than start with a paddock coming out of pasture.

Do not rush in: do your homework and study what is working locally. When the decision to change to no-till is made, preparation begins at harvest when stubble is cut short and left anchored and the remainder is well spread. Paddocks with high weed populations should not be used for no-till, and fence lines and tree lines need to be kept free of weeds to prevent paddock reinfestation.

The no-till system will continue to evolve and change as scientists and farmers strive to develop a more sustainable approach to conservation farming. New approaches to no-till farming, maintaining permanent soil cover with the use of cover crops and advanced technologies such as precision agriculture and disc seeding systems are likely. Through research and innovation of no-till technologies, such as those detailed in this publication, the Australian grains industry will continue to be at the forefront of the global effort to develop a sustainable approach to notill farming.

This article has been adapted from The Essential Guide to No-Till Farming published by SANTFA. Copies of this CAAANZ publication are available online at www.santfa.com.au.

"Soil structure improves under no-till and crops just seem to hang on that little bit better. In moving from minimum-till to no-till we have found that yields are more consistently in the higher range - we are getting good crops more often." - Edillilie farmer Shane Nelligan

" At this stage (September 2003) we are not getting better yields with no-till and stubble retention but our costs are lower and our country isn"t blowing away. Soil structure and organic matter levels are improving all the time, too." - Wirrulla farmer Shaun Freeman

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