Brad McIntyre’s foray into no-till farming had nothing to do with soil nutrients, limiting chemical sprays or even increasing yields, at least not at first. The fourth-generation farmer says he was sick of picking rocks out of the 1,600 acres he worked at McIntyre Farms, about 13 miles south of Caldwell. He searched Google looking for mechanical rock pickers.
Instead, he stumbled upon the “no-till” farming style. It has been around for decades but is still seen as a fringe practice compared with monoculture – one crop per field – dominating farming today.
McIntyre started reading about no-till farming, and then he read some more. He became convinced of its merits after attending several national no-till farming seminars with his brother and partner, Ben McIntyre. Convincing Loren McIntyre, his father and partner, was tougher. But the family started experimenting with no-till in 2009, garnered a few strange looks from neighboring farmers, and slowly converted nearly all of their fields to no-till.
“We push the envelope,” Brad says. “But I’m of the opinion that if you don’t fail at least once a year, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
“No-till” means just that: Farmers do not disrupt the soil during planting or after harvesting. They also plant cover crops that grow lower than the cash crop. In theory, a diverse crop mix creates a healthy mix of root systems and creates a rich soil than retains more water than single-crop fields. Monoculture strips and returns specific nutrients and minerals from a crop, depleting soil if crops are not rotated. No-till boosts soil health.
Nationwide, about 278,000 farms uses no-till practices on about 96 million acres, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. That is a little more than 12 percent of the nation’s 2.2 million farms and 10 percent of its 922 million acres of crops.
In Idaho, more than 1,000 farms farm nearly 468,000 acres using no-till or low-till practices, according to the Census. Low-till farmers grow cover crops and till sparingly. The state has 26,000 farms working 11 million acres.
A 2013 Washington Post article said no-till acreage was increasing in Midwest mainstay crops soybeans and wheat, though corn acreage had leveled off since 2005. No-till will never be an option for plants requiring diggers for harvest, including Idaho mainstays potatoes and sugar beets, though Brad McIntyre says some low-till practices would work.
Farmers on the quiet fringe tend to evangelize no-till’s benefits to water, to chemical conservation and to the bottom line.
In 2014, the nonprofit Idaho Center for Sustainable Agriculture brought in Gabe Brown, a leading voice for no-till farming, to be a keynote speaker at the group’s annual Sustainable Agriculture Symposium at the Nampa Civic Center. The group videotaped Brown talking about how he built organic matter in the soil at his North Dakota farm to more than 6 percent – an unusually high count –– while increasing profits.
The 58-minute video has more than 27,000 views on YouTube.
“Soil should look like black cottage cheese,” Brown says in the video. “Full of carbon, full of air space and aggregation.”
In 2014, the Ada County Soil and Water Conservation District bought a seeder that punches seeds through the hard surfaces produced by no-till farming. The district made the seeder available to rent. This year, it bought another seeder. Several farmers, including the McIntyres, bought their own seeders after renting from the district, District Manager Josie Erskine says.
On his farm one late-June day, Brad McIntyre wades into the thigh-high mix of peas and 10 other cover crops. He says this 70-acre field is his family’s “poster child,” the test field in 2009 that was more successful than expected and that convinced the family to expand no-till to the rest of the farm.
He scrapes back the top layer of decaying debris from last year’s corn crop. Traditional farmers call such debris trash. No-till farmers call it residue.
“I still call it ‘trash’ sometimes,” McIntyre says. “It’s a different perspective.”
He steps into the shovel and picks through the dirt. It is several shades darker than in the tilled days, reflecting increased soil health. Organic matter, the statistic most coveted by no-till farmers, has increased from 1.7 percent to more than 3 percent, McIntyre says. He finds several worms, which were not present in McIntyre’s soil a decade ago.
More organic matter in soil means more carbon. “Carbon is what drives production,” he says. “Carbon is the answer.”
BUT DOES IT WORK?
Loren McIntyre says he resisted no-till farming until it started making money. The family expected yields to drop for several years while the soil became more rich.
Instead, the farm’s corn yield increased from about 240 bushels per acre to 274, Brad McIntyre says. Peas increased from 32 sacks per acre to 42. Alfalfa, which makes up most of the family’s acreage, hasn’t increased, and Brad McIntyre would like to devote more of the family’s alfalfa acreage to crops that benefit more from the improved soil.
The family saves about $100 per acre on tillage, Brad McIntyre says, and it now makes one or two sprayer passes a year instead of two or three. No-till farming saves costs on labor and, in combination with the farm’s pivot irrigation, lends increased irrigation flexibility because the soil retains more water.
“After you see it working, you get with it,” Loren McIntyre says.
Brad McIntyre said investing in no-till was more psychological than financial. The family purchased a used seeder for $25,000. It spends $40-$45 per acre on cover crop seeds and shipping.
“The cover crop seed easily pays for itself in the nutrient-mineral cycle,” he says.