Leon Mercer has been using the no-till system and has not tilled his 2,300 acres of farmland for 15 years. According to Mercer, "the first 3-5 years are the hardest," in regards to producing an overly successful crop.
According to Mark Evans, Agriculture and Natural Resources Educator for Clay and Owen counties and the County Extension
Director for Owen County, decaying plants (organic matter) in the soil produce carbon and nitrogen. Each time the land is tilled, organic matter breaks down and carbon leaves the soil in the form of carbon dioxide gas.
Evans said, "The no-till system changes the chemical, biological and physical properties of the soil. When soil is not tilled, 65-80 percent of the organic matter from decomposing roots remains in the soil. Decomposing leaves and stems on the soil surface mostly become carbon dioxide escaping to the air.
"When tillage is implemented, not only is the surface material lost as carbon dioxide to the air, but also the organic matter in the decomposing roots becomes carbon dioxide escaping to the air.
"The reason for being concerned about organic matter is that it holds nutrients, water and helps to buffer soil while also making soil resistant to soil compaction. Water percolation and infiltration are enhanced in no-till due to increased organic matter. This is evident in the fall when no-till farmers can get back into the field a day or two earlier than the conventional tillage farmer following a rainfall event."
A closer look into a pit created by a backhoe, revealed that Mercer's farm ground has rich, dark, top soil that is about 7 inches deep. Viewers were also able to see root channels from ryegrass that reached up to 3 feet long.
Ryegrass is planted in the fall (September) and grown over the winter to help stop erosion and to build organic matter in the spring once it dies. The roots also create paths in the soil for the corn or soybean roots to follow once the ryegrass decays, allowing the new plant roots to go deeper. Ryegrass roots also capture nitrogen and recycle other nutrients to the surface. Ryegrass has a massive root system that can permeate through Clay County's tight soils.
According to Evans, not all annual ryegrass varieties are resistant to winter kill. The Saddle Pro variety of annual ryegrass has proven itself in this area.
There are some "must do's" when using ryegrass, "don't put too much on," said Matt Mace, Growers Co-Op Crop Specialist. About 10 to 15 pounds per acre is a good seeding rate. "Because of the way that ryegrass grows, there is a lot of root mass compared to plant growth above ground," according to Evans. If you plant too much, the above ground part will create a mat on top making it hard for the new plants to grow. Also the mat is an ideal habitat for some harmful pests.
Mace also listed the necessary qualities to being a successful no-tiller. Most importantly, the land must have proper drainage and a successful ground cover must be used to protect against erosion.
According to Mercer, "Sometime in the 30s the government decided to spend money on soil conservation. If you want to keep soil from going down the river and making Louisiana bigger, the way is no-till."
Alan Stevenson, a local farmer, has installed about 800,000 feet of tile since 1998 to help keep his farm land draining properly. He said, tile will "keep the water table controlled to stop nitrogen from running downstream." Also, the tile will help crops take drought and flooding easier. Tile is plastic tubing that is inserted in the soil of four or five, 6 inches in diameter at 24 to 30 inches in depth. Tile can be installed using an attachment that can be put on a tractor. The attachment is the Soil-Max Gold Digger Pro. Tile spacing and strategies for placement were also discussed.
The other purpose of the event was for Leon Mercer to sign a contract with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) new program Conservation Security Program (CSP) as a leader in soil conservation. As one of 454 producers offered contracts, Mercer farms on one (Middle Wabash-Busseron) of five watersheds selected to participate this year.