The past several growing seasons, Penn State Extension in Lancaster County and the Lancaster County Conservation District have worked with local growers to design, construct and fine-tune a no-till transplanter for use in tobacco, pumpkins and vegetables.
Funds for the project were provided by a Park-the-Plow grant to make the planter available on a trial basis.
Since the transplanter’s introduction, more than 60 farmers in Lancaster and Chester counties have used it or another similar one. More than 200 acres of no-till tobacco and vegetables have been planted in past growing seasons.
The goal of No-till transplanting is to gain the benefits of no-till — such as cover crop residues and better soil quality — for crops normally planted with primary and secondary tillage.
Many producers are successfully finding ways to integrate no-till with tobacco production. Toward this end, a local Amish shop has begun custom-building and selling no-till transplanters in the Peach Bottom area.
No-tilling has many advantages; however, it is not something a farmer should go into without forethought.
Fields should have a good cover, either from crop residues or preferably a healthy cover crop, to protect the soil and prevent erosion.
Modest amounts of fall applied manure will build soil fertility for the tobacco and cause vigorous cover-crop growth.
Cover crops should be killed several weeks before planting so they mat down, protecting the soil but not so thick as to interfere with planter operation.
One of the biggest challenges in no-till vegetables and tobacco is weed control. A complete herbicide program will be needed to replace the multiple cultivations which these crops often receive.
Herbicides labeled for no-till use in tobacco include Command, Spartan, Devrinol and Prowl. All of these require rainfall for activation.
Whenever possible, apply them when rain is in the seven-day forecast. None of these have good post-emergent activity on weeds, so — if you are seeing new weed seedlings after your burndown but prior to planting — include a second application of glyphosate with the products listed above.
Fields should have good fertility with tobacco grade fertilizer applied prior to planting.
The transplants should be set as deep as possible (4 inches or up to the heart) to prevent ground suckers. Because the transplanter uses a carousel, only plug plants should be used.
Finally, use a good insecticide and fungicide program as suggested by your buyer.
The transplanter will again be available to farmers wanting to try no-till tobacco (and pumpkins and other vegetables, as available) on a few acres.
The no-till transplanting unit is mounted on a corn planter frame and can be pulled with a forecart and horses or a tractor. It can also be easily transported from farm to farm.
Does no-till tobacco have a future?
Currently, there are at least a dozen no-till transplanters of various designs being used around Lancaster, Chester and as far away as Clinton counties.
Farmers who are good managers and pay attention to detail are showing that no-till tobacco produces a high-quality crop with excellent yields while maintaining the health of the soil.
Contact Dennis Eby at the Lancaster Conservation District, 717-951-9417, or Jeff Graybill at Lancaster Extension, 717-394-6851, for more information or to get on the list of farms using the planter.
This year, there is a cost of $25 per acre to use planter.