POMPEY, N.Y. — Transitioning from conventional to no-till management challenges growers in a variety of ways. On a panel at Empire Farm Days earlier this month, farmers spoke about their journey toward no-till management.
On his 800-acre cash crop farm with varied soils in Skaneateles, Jason Cuddeback uses wheat as a cover crop and minimizes tilling.
While Cuddeback advises other farms on no-till practices as a certified crop adviser and conservation district grazing specialist, he joked that his father is “my worst client.”
But the family farm has been shifting from conventional management since 1999 with help from Cornell Cooperative Extension.
The Cuddebacks are now working toward no-till. They use zone tillage and GPS guidance for improved seed, fertilizer and pesticide placement.
“Maybe someday we’ll be no-till,” Cuddeback said.
The farm used to have issues with standing water. The penetrometer kept hitting rocks.
“It took us three years until we realized we had a lot of compaction,” Cuddeback said.
Building up organic matter in the soil and reducing the number of passes over the soil has helped improve the soil quality.
“I think there are still ways to improve,” Cuddeback said. “We’ve done no-till in the past but didn’t get yields. This stuff takes time to work out.”
He is considering adding cows to his operation; however, “I want to be as little till as possible. I don’t know how I’d incorporate.”
He recommends gradual transition to no-till.
“There’s got to be a transition phase,” he said. “You can’t just go whole hog.”
He said that two years is the minimum time to move to no-till management.
Marty Young, who runs a 600-cow dairy in Truxton, farms nearly 1,700 acres and began zone tilling in 2006 to reduce soil loss and fuel use. Ten years later, he began using a no-till drill for seeding and cover crops.
Young became interested in no-till as a way to reduce soil erosion.
“You don’t make as many ruts,” he said.
Among the changes his farm has experienced during its transition to no-till was figuring out how to manage manure without cultivation.
“The big push is to get it out there at a safe time,” he said.
Planting a cover crop has been helpful in both preventing soil erosion and in suppressing weeds. He plants rye, triticale and hairy vetch and is considering trying other covers.
“We’ve been doing a good job in the past 10 years of getting nutrients on the farm, better than we ever have before,” he said.
The changes have helped his farm do more with less labor.
In Ithaca, Jamie Baker milks 300 cows and farms more than 1,000 acres, some of which he manages organically.
Baker has planted cover crops for 18 years and has started double-cropping in the past few year.
Baker is transitioning to 100% no-till, though he still tilling his organic fields for weed control.
Like Young, Baker said that soil erosion is a big concern for him.
“We get more 2-inch rains than before,” he said.
Baker spreads manure daily, “which is a challenge,” he said. Later in the season, when he cannot spread on planted fields, “we sacrifice our organic field to help our no-till.”
For the past 20 years, his farm has used cover crops. Before then, “it was like if you’re done chopping and you have rye seed lying around, you plant it. We changed our mindset — chop then plant. It makes a huge difference when you’re ready to harvest.”
Reducing tillage has offered his farm other advantages, including reducing fuel and labor costs.
“We’re all busy, but there are less of us,” Baker said. “That wasn’t a big thing when we were first looking into it. We use half as much fuel.”