In February Ed Winkle was hosted by FAR to talk to Farmers about reduced tillage in corn and soybeans in the USA. Ed spoke at the FAR Maize day and then visited farmers around the North Island to look at maize and corn planters and discuss planter setup options.
He visited 3 LandWISE farmers while in NZ, David Clark, Hugh Ritchie and Hew Dalrymple, where he saw how some innovative NZ farmers and contractors are setting up their gear. Ed has modified planters for himself and other farmers in the US and believes that similar methods would work well in New Zealand conditions.
How Ed’s cropping system works
Ed buys farms and works on drainage first, retiling and draining as required. He then works on pH and soil fertility to eliminate any limiting factors.
His grandfather planted over 4 months but Ed targets the best 5 planting days. Timing of planting is aimed at catching plenty of sun on the longest day.Timing is right for Ed if his best yield comes from his second or third paddock planted. Emergence within a 48 hour range shows that he has achieved even establishment.
Soil resilience has improved quickly with minimum tillage. Water infiltration, drought resistance, earthworm numbers and recovery from adverse events are better. Ed saw very compacted soils on many of the farms he visited in NZ. “If you aren’t already getting some serious soil problems, you’ve got them coming, your soil needs less passes”, he said.
Nitrogen rates are comparable to those in NZ and are set using models based on projected yields. Ammonium sulphate is applied at 100kg/ha which Ed believes aids the microbial breakdown of slash, which is rarely mulched.
Less P and K are being applied to Ed’s farm now than when he started in 2004, and he knows some min till farmers who have applied none in 20yrs. 17 nutrients are monitored in his soil tests and each is held at satisfactory levels with targeted fertilising to ensure yields are not compromised.
Setting up a planter for reduced tillage
The only cultivation done is by the planter itself. It is set up to achieve consistent tilth, cultivation depth, soil cover, seed depth and firming in a single pass. Setup is critical, says Ed. “The planter units should ‘float’ along. If you are working with pressure, you are working against yourself.” And he carries this philosophy through a lot of what he says.
The planter uses 500mm disc to cut trash and soil surface and residue managers clear trash from a 6 inch strip for soil warming and planter performance. Ed uses Keaton seed firmers to ensure each seed is correctly set in the planting slot. Planter performance is monitored carefully with results checked in every paddock.
Pre season maintenance includes measuring disc diameters and any play in moving parts. Out of spec discs are discarded and any loose joints are shimmed or rebushed to ensure consistent results.
Ed sees cultivation as a catastrophic event for a soil. Cover cropping is seen as offering multiple benefits and protecting the soil. It gives something back to the system. Radish is used as a cover crop to provide soil aeration, reduce compaction and capture and store nutrients. It also provides bio fumigation against weeds and pests. In Iowa it only grows for 60 days or so before it is killed by snow. But Ed is an advocate as he sees the significant gains being well worth the cost and effort of planting.
Reduced tillage corn provides great erosion control and improvements in soil properties, but is done primarily for economic reasons. Yield is king and drives profit.
Costs are reduced by fewer passes. Environmental benefits ‘come along for the ride’.
Ed believes many reduced tillage disappointments are simply a result of using the wrong gear and/or setting it up wrong. The system he is using has been successful across a range of soil types across the US. Corn yields of 11 tonnes / ha are typical in the US.Ed’s yields have risen from 10.3 to 13.9 tonnes/ha in 6 yrs and are climbing.
“Some farmers are happy with [11 tonnes], but I need to pay the bank. I didn’t get given anything, so it has to work,” he said.
Reduced passes and smarter planter setup are the keys to more successful farming. Ed was heartened to see so many NZ planters being set up towards reduced tillage and “saving soil, oil and toil”
Ed’s conclusion: “Make less trips across your fields and make more money!”
Thanks to FAR for hosting Ed.