U.S. Water News Online
HASTINGS, Neb. -- Bob Johnson began using the no-till
farming method on his central Nebraska farm 10 years ago as an
experiment. Today, he says it's a necessity.
A drought that has lasted more than five years and increasing
water demand from growing metropolitan areas are forcing farmers in
the West and Midwest into trying new farming methods that use less
water, such as no-till.
In addition to using less water, Johnson, 77, says no-till farming
leads to better yields, less time in his fields and lower fuel costs.
Most importantly, Johnson says, switching to no-till is better than
allowing the drought to force farmers off their land.
"For me, there is just no other way of doing it,'' says Johnson as
he was perched atop a pivot on a recent day. "It's the right thing to
Tom Buis, a vice president for the National Farmers Union, said he
is seeing farmers switching to low-water crops or even selling land
and selling livestock to survive.
"It's tremendously devastating,'' Buis said of the drought. "It
has forced them to change their operations.''
Farmers who use no-till don't plow fields before planting but
instead plant crop seeds directly into the soil. Heavy planting
equipment is used to push the seeds right through the remnants of
harvested crops. The residue from the old crops serves as an insulate
to the soil, locking in moisture, nutrients and minerals.
Instead of tilling out weed infestations, herbicide is needed to
kill off invasive species, although supporters of the practice say
weeds will kill themselves over time with the right crop rotation and
In 1998, which was the beginning of the drought in most places, 16
percent of the nation's farmland was no-till, according to the
Conservation Technology Information Center based in Lafayette, Ind.
By this year, preliminary data shows that number has increased to
In the drought-stricken states of South Dakota, Kansas and
Nebraska, there has been a 67 percent increase in no-till adoption
since 1998, according to the CTIC.
"In drought areas, it is growing by leaps and bounds,'' says Brian
Lindley, a no-till advocate in Wamego, Kan.
No-till experts have long been selling the idea on the benefits it
has to the soil, but scientists and farmers alike are finding it is
also an ideal way to deal with little rainfall on dryland farms and
reduced irrigation on irrigated crops.
"I think people are taking a really hard look at how they run
their operations,'' says Tim Anderson, a spokesman for the Central
Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District. "No-till five years
ago would have been a really tough sell.''
Central owns Lake McConaughy, which has been used for irrigation
since it was built in the 1940s. Because the lake is used for some
energy generation and is a hotbed of recreational activity in the
state, it has become tangible portrait of the drought. As of Oct. 18
the water level was at about 3,201 feet above sea level, or 22
percent of capacity. It hit a record low of 3,197 feet above sea
level in mid-September. The lowest it had been before then was in
Next summer, irrigators in the district will get half the water
they normally do from the lake.
"They're (irrigators) all on a big learning curve,'' says Marcia
Trompke, the conservation director at Central. "Anytime you're in
this harsh of circumstances, you have to think differently.''
Johnson acknowledges he thinks a little differently. With some
controversy, Johnson, a member of the Nebraska Public Power and
Irrigation District's board, has lobbied for years to stop irrigating
altogether from the lake. He says there is no need to use so much
water if farmers would just change the way they farm.
This year on his 360-acre farm, Johnson used 7 inches of irrigated
water on his corn and 5 inches on his soybeans. He estimates that if
he were tilling his soil, he would need three times as much water.
The amount of water Johnson used this summer is about what
irrigators in his irrigation district will get from Lake McConaughy
next year and about half of what they are usually allotted.
"(No-till) seems to be an answer to water problems that to me,
just isn't being looked at,'' Johnson said.
Critics of no-till say it is too expensive to implement with new,
heavier planters and equipment like row cleaners. They also say the
system relies too heavily on herbicides, pesticides and even
genetically modified crops, such as Roundup Ready soybeans that make
it easier to control weeds.
But for equipment Johnson still uses the old 1948 Farmall IH
tractor his father bought that he says "most people wouldn't even be
seen on.'' He also uses the same planter he's been using since the
Johnson admits that herbicide use can be a roadblock for some, but
maintains that after the first year, his pesticide and herbicide use
actually decreased because the quality of the soil and the crop
rotation took care of the weeds and pests.
Advocates of no-till say the practice can be daunting at first and
that it takes some ingenuity and a lot of courage to begin.
"The main stumbling block is probably more mental than anything,''
says Lindley, who works as the program director of the organization
No-Till on the Plains.
Farmers who begin using the no-till method must first set aside
their plows, which have been a part of farming since farmers began
breaking land. They must then get used to dirty looking fields and
the occasional weed. For most farmers, seeing a weed in a field isn't
During Johnson's first year of no-till farming he spotted weeds
where he hadn't seen them before and he says, "I thought, 'Johnson,
what have you got yourself into?'''
He suspects his neighbors still scoff at his fields, but he points
out that now, he is likely getting the same or better yields from his
land &emdash; and he's doing something to preserve the soil and the
"You don't look for the immediate. It's looking for the long term
and having something for the next generation,'' Johnson says. "It's a
challenge. But it's good for the soil &emdash; it's good for me.''
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