article by Randall Reeder, Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Engineer (retired)
from Ohio’s Country Journal
This delightful article takes a look at the history and development of no-till farming. This method of farming improves soil quality. Learn more in our Soil and sustainability unit.
“Glover, they’re going to fire you.”
The first time Glover Triplett took his wife to see the new no-till research plots in 1962, the corn was about a foot tall, and the ground was littered with dead weeds and corn stalks from the previous year. The plot looked awful compared to a clean tilled field. She was scared he would lose his first faculty position at OSU-OARDC in Wooster.
Well, he was not fired, and neither was his co-researcher, Dave Van Doren. But they did attract interesting questions about their innovative research, including, “How can you measure erosion if you don’t have any runoff?”
Triplett and Van Doren established identical plots in 1963 at Hoytville (Wood County) and South Charleston (Clark County). These plots at OSU-OARDC research stations continue to give valuable results today. No-till was known as “farming ugly” in the early days by farmers accustomed to perfectly clean fields, with not a speck of crop residue. Since these earliest experiments, Ohio has played a unique and important role in the world of no-till.
This showed up at the National No-Till Conference held in early January that featured a unique look at the history of no-till research and its contributions. No-Till Farmer puts on the conference and commissioned both me and Ohio State University alum and retired UDSA-ARS soil scientist Don Reicosky to take a look at all no-till and conservation agriculture research.
I was delighted when Mike Lessiter with No-Till Farmer asked me to head this project. And getting Don Reicosky to help was a key to our success. “No tillage” has been around only 60 years, starting with research in Ohio and Southern Illinois, and a couple of innovative farmers, Harry Young in Kentucky and Bill Richards in Pickaway County.
We were asked to pick the top 15 no-till research works in North America and the top 15 most significant conservation agriculture research works in the world. My background is in Extension and Don has a more direct connection to the research than I do, and he is deeply involved internationally.
Lessiter wrote: “Solicitations of the scientific community worldwide yielded 208 nominated works for consideration as the most significant for North American No-Tillage and for Global Conservation Agriculture (as the system is more widely known internationally). From that list of 208 works, volunteer subcommittees provided their rankings and feedback to Reeder (North America) and Reicosky (Global) in mid-November…The format and process established in 2021 will serve as a framework in subsequent years to recognize additional important works.”
As you may have guessed, Ohio connections were prominent in the no-till research in the United States. Of the Top 15, several authors from Ohio were included. Here they are.
Ohio Extension agent and farmer Edward Faulkner published Plowman’s Folly in 1943 and changed the tillage discussion around the country with one sentence: “The fact is that no one has ever advanced a scientific reason for plowing.” Faulkner was from Elyria and his writing set agricultural circles and beyond abuzz with controversy. It also inspired The Furrow and Us, a well-written rebuttal in favor of the plow from Walter Thomas Jack. The resulting debate continues today and, at the time was described by Time Magazine as the “hottest farming argument since the tractor first challenged the horse.”
Continuous tillage and rotation combinations effects on corn, soybean, and oat yields
After more than 20 years of continuous no-till research on multiple soil types (the longest of any in the world), no-till yield results we very strong compared to yields in tilled fields in well-drained soil, but not in poorly drained soil. Ohio State University researchers Warren Dick and David M. Van Doren, Jr. demonstrated the consistent yield capabilities of no-till to the world, at least for well drained soils. Work from Warren Dick was included in the top 15 international list as well.
Severe rainstorm test of no-till corn
Ohio is home to many flat, rich farm fields, but also has plenty of hilly terrain providing opportunities for significant soil erosion when tillage is used. The USDA-ARS Northern Appalachian Experimental Watershed in Coshocton looked at soil erosion in different tillage systems for 40 years. Researchers at the facility Lloyd L. Harrold and William M. Edwards published work in 1972 in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation on erosion in these systems after a continuous no-till corn watershed on a steep (21%) slope was hit with 5.5 inches of rain in 7 hours on July 5, 1969. Almost half of the rain (2.5 inches) ran off. The no-till lost 63 pounds of sediment per acre (yes, 63 POUNDS). In comparison, a 6.6% slope with corn in plowed ground had 4.4 inches of water runoff in the same rain event and lost 22 TONS of sediment per acre.
Evolution of the plow over 10,000 years and the rationale for no-till farming
The plow has evolved over many years and is closely tied to humanity and agriculture. Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal has worked extensively in the area of regenerative agriculture and was presented with the 2020 World Food Prize for his contributions to global agricultural production, restoration of degraded soils and carbon sequestration. This 2007 work, in conjunction with Reicosky, provided a look at that history and a strong thesis for the benefits of no-till. Lal’s work is also featured in the top 15 international list.
Conservation tillage systems and management
I served at the technical editor for this work compiling the efforts of nearly 60 authors in two editions (1992 and 2000). The manuals take broad comparative looks at the implementation of no-till and other conservation tillage systems.
Agriculture without tillage
Triplett and Van Doren teamed up again for this 1977 paper reviewing the practices for growing corn and describing ways to effectively implement no-till. It offered practical tips for weed control, stand establishment, crop rotation, and residue management, among others.
What benefits will the next 60 years of research on no-till and cover crops provide for society? It is hard to say, but I doubt that any young professor with “ugly” no-till research plots will fear getting fired.
(photo courtesy of OSU CFAES)