No-till farming methods gain ground, increasing yields, saving soil and labor

ACROSS the American farmbelt, the plow is meeting its match.

Though unrivaled at breaking up hardened prairie and ripping out weeds, the plow is a nemesis for soil conservationists, leaving behind loose, crumbly soil to fend with the spring rains.

In the last decade, engineers at some of the United States' largest tractor manufacturers proposed an alternative: no-till farming. With this new method, farmers are able to:

* Reduce runoff by leaving the stalks of last year's crop in the fields as mulch.

* Kill weeds with biodegradable herbicides rather than springtime tractor-cultivation.

* Plant seeds and fertilize in a single trip, using a new generation of no-till implements.

For Dale Faulkner, a county agent for the US Soil Conservation Service in Indianola, Iowa, no-till farming is ``the greatest thing to happen in soil conservation.'' The rolling pastures and cropland in Mr. Faulkner's area were particularly vulnerable to erosion and the response to the new method from local farmers has been enthusiastic.

While the operating costs of no-till and conventional farming are roughly the same, many farmers receive equal or better yields by using the no-till method, Mr. Faulkner adds.

Larry Watts of Norwalk, Iowa, says he has been using a John Deere no-till planter for corn for the past 10 years and just last spring bought a Case International no-till ``drill'' for planting soybeans and alfalfa. (A drill, usually a combination of wheels and discs, is a farming implement used to dig furrows, plant seeds, and cover the seeds with soil.)

YOU can tell the erosion has definitely been cut down,'' Mr. Watts says in a telephone interview. ``Now we don't lose any soil to speak of.'' And while no-till farming requires greater amounts of contact herbicides than does conventional farming, it pays for itself in reduced labor. Unlike conventional farming, which requires several kinds of tilling, the no-till drill requires only one pass over the fields to plant and fertilize.

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