By Barbara Mellon

The signs pop up along fields chock full of swaying stalks of corn during late summer and early fall. “SeedWay” some proclaim, “No-Till Corn” others announce.

SeedWay, it turns out, is a company located in Hall, NY, in Ontario County, which markets farm seed throughout the Northeast United States. The letters and numbers on the signs designate the variety of corn, wheat, alfalfa or other crop growing in a particular field.

The “No-Till Corn” signs, on the other hand, are not indicators of a type of crop but rather a style of planting gaining popularity due to the benefits it offers over traditional tilling methods.

Tilling a field to be planted has a number of uses. The debris from the prior crop is plowed under, as are any weeds growing in the soil, hastening the decomposition of this excess growth and enriching the soil. The earth is loosened and aerated which makes it easier to plant into and to apply fertilizers and herbicides.

But there are downsides to tilling. Soil that has been turned over loses much of its carbon content, and releases CO2 into the atmosphere. (Think global warming). The loosened, carbon-poor soil is more susceptible to erosion which increases the amount of topsoil and chemicals that will find their way into streams and ponds.

In recent years, there has been a growing move to no-till farming, or conservation tilling. Rather than tilling the earth to prepare for planting, specially designed machines are used to drill holes into a field still occupied by the stubble of the previous growth and to then insert the seeds. Without the tilling, more carbon is retained, creating healthier topsoil full of nutrients which may eventually lessen the amount of fertilizer required. A negative is that more herbicides may be necessary to control weeds. In response, genetically modified herbicide-tolerant plants are being developed.

Judi Tait, who grew up on the farm she took over 10 years ago, switched to no-till planting this year. Her reason for changing to this emergent technique highlights another benefit of no-till farming: lower costs.

In the past, her Dad, Vigo Skovsende, would spend days plowing the fields and picking rocks out of them before they could be planted. More recently, Tait has hired Frank Albano to come in to do the plowing and planting. Her 18 acres took his crew about 4 days to till and plant as the tractors drove back and forth across the fields a number of times, each pass using increasingly expensive fuel. With the no-till method, Albano had Tait’s fields planted in just a couple of hours this year, saving an enormous number of hours of labor and gallons of fuel. In a single pass, the holes were drilled, seeds planted and herbicide and fertilizer applied.

When asked if she was concerned about the need to use herbicides to control weeds with no-till planting, Tait said this was not something new; they were using herbicides with the conventional tilling method as well. Because her concern was mostly financial, Tait hadn’t given much thought to a decrease in erosion, but did notice that they didn’t experience as much runoff as usual. With the hilly fields throughout Andes, this could be a real benefit.

Was she satisfied with the results of this year’s experiment with no-till planting? “The corn looked good, grew good,” Tait said. And most importantly, it certainly cost less. Next year will see her again employing this new technique.

Not all farmers may experience the up-front cost savings that Tait did. The new equipment that Albano uses is expensive. ~

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