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No-till approach becoming the norm for farmers

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By Frank Shanly

It’s that time of year again, when farmers are out in their fields planting their crops.

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And for most crop farmers – tobacco being the exception – a method known as “no-till planting” is used increasingly.

Instead of “digging up” the ground to plant the coming year’s seed, planting machines make a narrow initial slice in the ground, drop the seed in and then close the slice up again.

“From an environmental standpoint, you have hardly any at all soil erosion,” farmer Ray Tucker said. “You’re just not disturbing the soil at all.

“The other advantage is moisture conserving. When you till the piece of ground you’re leaving it bare dirt. But with this [no-till], residue from the previous year’s crop [is still in the ground, and] that helps hold the moisture in the ground, especially when you have a dry year like you did last year.

“It just keeps the moisture in the ground and helps the planting going along with less rainfall. All the earthworms are still in the ground doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and all the other organic matter is still in there. It just makes for a healthier soil.”

The no-till method has been used in Shelby County for about 20 years now, with the biggest changes being in the area of the technology available to assist the farmer.

“These tractors drive themselves,” said Mark Burks, manager at Limestone Farm, Lawn and Worksite. “He [the farmer] can let go of the steering wheel, and the GPS will take over and drive him down to the end of the field. When he gets to the end of the field, he’ll just turn around, and it will line itself up again and start planting the rows perfectly.

“The biggest changes you’re seeing is row guidance and the advancements they have made on the use of computers to operate these planters.

“The operator has gone out the year before and taken the information from his harvest – how much he got out of one part of the field, how well the ground was as far as moisture and how much weeds were in it. He will have a map of it to go by, that will tell him that in this part of the field I don’t need to plant as much corn or as much seed and fertilizer because this ground will really produce. But down there I’m going to have to put down more seed and more fertilizer, and the computer will regulate how much seed is being dropped as he goes across the field.”

Modern planting machines are built to enable 12 rows of corn or 31 rows of soybeans to be planted on each pass over a field, making it much easier for a farmer to plant a large crop.

Burks noted that much of the success of no-till in recent years has been because of the high commodity prices of corn.

“A lot of people are putting ground that they might not normally have put into corn, and they can do it with no-till without causing much erosion and stuff to the soil,” Burks said. “Here in Shelby County, being so close to Lexington and Louisville, our population of people was growing, and we were building a lot of houses.

“As the housing market went down, and the commodity prices went up, a lot of the farmers have been able to buy land from developers, or prevent developers from buying land, and they can make enough money to farm with it.”

Tucker noted that there have been experiments conducted with tobacco crops using no-till planting, and in some parts of Kentucky it works well. But Shelby County hasn’t yet been able to replicate the success.

For the county’s other crops however, no-till planting has proven to be a cut above the rest, and appears destined to be the method of choice for many years to come.