Farmers who use no-till production practices can make an important environmental contribution through reduced greenhouse gas emissions and reduced soil erosion. In addition, successful adoption of no-till could represent significant reductions in cost of production for growers. In Ontario, no-till production practices are used extensively for soybean and wheat production. However, for corn production, it has been estimated that fewer than 10% of growers utilize no-till. A recent proposal (“A Research and Development Plan to Reduce the Production of Greenhouse Gases Using Corn/Soybean/Wheat Cropping Systems”) presented to the Ontario Field Crops Research Coalition recommended conducting grower focus groups to explain low levels of no-till adoption in corn production. Focus group discussions sponsored by the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO), Monsanto and OCPA were held in Ridgetown and Woodstock in March, 2001.
Three categories of growers were represented:
1) Growers using no-till production practices on all or a portion of their corn acres
2) Growers who had tried no-till in corn, but reverted back to conventional tillage
3) Growers who have never used no-till practices in corn.
Some key findings from these focus groups include:
1) Cost of converting to a no-till system is a major consideration for growers currently practicing conventional tillage. Several growers expressed concern that they would not be able to adopt no-till on all of their land, and consequently they would need to maintain equipment for both no-till and conventional corn production.
2) Growers who have not tried no-till generally perceive yields with no-till to be lower in comparison to conventional tillage. No-till growers, however, often do not have yield reductions (based on comparisons to yields of neighboring farmers, county averages, etc.). Growers are willing to accept some reduction in yield to realize lower costs of production and environmental benefits associated with no-till production.
3) Growers currently using conventional tillage for corn production do not perceive a significant reduction in capital investment in equipment. This is due to the perceived high cost of converting to no-till production. It also results from uncertainty regarding whether no-till could be adopted for all corn acres, and whether equipment for conventional tillage would need to be maintained.
4) No-till production requires a higher level of management, particularly for planter setup and operation, and for planting start and stop decisions.
5) Growers not using no-till perceive that no-till yields are more variable, thus increasing risk. This perception tended to differ from growers currently using no-till, who indicated that no-till was not a higher risk system than a conventional till system, and that management could be used to reduce risk.
6) Heavy textured and/or poorly drained soils reduce the likelihood of successfully using no-till. This is due to delayed planting resulting from delayed spring dry down, and increased potential for compaction.
7) If a no-till field becomes compacted, growers have few options to reduce compaction levels.
8) Hybrid selection for no-till was identified as being important. While growers were able to identify desired characteristics for a no-till adapted hybrid, they questioned whether hybrids are actively being developed for no-till.
9) Planter configuration and management under no-till is critical in order to deal with more variable soil conditions, higher residue levels and a rougher soil surface. Uneven emergence, variable populations and uneven stands are often related to planter performance and management. Growers generally expressed some uncertainty regarding optimum planter configurations.
10) Weed control in a no-till system is not perceived to be a problem.
11) Insects and diseases are perceived to be more of a problem under no-till than under conventional tillage. Slug damage under high residue conditions, particularly following forages, was identified as a problem.
12) Rotation crops producing high levels of residue (forages, corn, high yielding cereals) can limit the success of no-till. Successive years of corn was also identified as limiting to no-till success.
13) Growers currently not using no-till suggested that planting delays associated with no-till were a problem. Growers currently using no-till indicated that while initiation of planting may be delayed under no-till, over all, the planting operation may not be delayed. No-till growers can plant more acres in a day than conventional till growers, as they are not delayed by tillage operations.
14) Growers generally concluded that manure management was more difficult under a no-till system. Reasons for this include the fact that compaction caused by manure application is more difficult to address in a no-till system, and also that it may not be possible to capture all the nitrogen benefits of manure, since the manure would be surface-applied. Concern was also expressed regarding the environmental implications of applying manure under no-till.
14) Growers did not consider nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium management to be limiting to no-till production systems.
Since significant economic and environmental benefits have been demonstrated with no-till, OCPA, the Innovative Farmers and researchers will be utilizing the results of these focus groups to develop priorities for research to overcome the apparent resistance to wider adoption of no-till corn production.