This is the third in a series of four articles focusing on no-till farming. This article will focus on converting to no-till and the issues you need to plan for before converting.
There is more to converting to no-till than purchasing a no-till drill and planter. A variety of concerns need to be addressed in the field before converting to no-till. These concerns include the following field conditions: pH, surface roughness, and deep compaction. If soil tests show a need for lime, add it before your last tillage operation. The tillage will distribute the lime throughout the plow layer. After starting a no-till system, lime is added to the surface, and it will take years before it moves through the plow layer. Optimal soil pH can be maintained by regular surface applications of liming materials.
The surface of the field needs to be fairly smooth. Ruts and other uneven surfaces should be tilled out. Planting into an uneven surface results in varying seed depth and an uneven stand. Planting through a pile of residue has the same results. Usually it is easier to plant through standing corn stalks than a mat of chopped stalks, because the planter will not have to cut as much residue to get the seed to the proper depth.
Prior to starting no-till farming, you must consider deep compaction. If you feel there is deep compaction due to rutting or heavy traffic, a soil penetrometer can be used to check and identify the depth of the compacted layer. Deep tillage is recommended to break up the compaction and should be done just under that layer. This allows the roots to move through the soil profile. Deep rooted plants, such as clover or rye, should be included in the rotation to prevent new compacted layers from forming. Penn State has a publication Diagnosing Soil Compaction Using a Penetrometer to help you through this step (http://cropsoil.psu.edu/extension/facts/agfacts63.cfm).
Another thing to consider is where in your rotation to start. For example, no-till corn after fall-killed hay is generally the easiest place to start, because soil structure improved while the field was in hay. Small grains can be easily planted into corn silage or soybean residue. The low residue levels of these crops make it easy for a beginner to have success. If you are currently no-till planting some crops, it is easiest to start with those and then add the remaining crops over time. For example, if you no-till your soybeans now, just no-till them the first year. In the second year, plant your soybeans and the next crop in your rotation that follows the beans with no-till. Each year you add another crop to no-till and additional fields until you are completely no-till. The key to this scenario is not tilling a field after it has been no-tilled. Generally speaking, it is easier to no-till just a few fields at first until you feel confident you can get good stand establishment with the no-till planter or drill. By slowly switching just some fields you can minimize the risk. As with anything new, some experimentation is required to figure out what equipment setup works best for your farms and soil types.
For anyone who genuinely wants to begin no-till farming, educate yourself. It is the most important thing you can do before you start. Talk to others with experience and learn from their mistakes. Attend field days; go to workshops; talk to your equipment dealer, your seed dealer, your pesticide supplier and your extension agent. The more you learn about setting up your equipment, choosing the appropriate seed and using the proper pesticides, the better. In order to successfully switch to no-till, you need to plan ahead. The earlier you start, the more prepared you are when it comes time to put the seed in the ground.