Results of Funded Research
Joint Project Between University of Kentucky, Wheat Tech, Inc. and Miles Opti-Crop
No-till wheat production will become more extensive on Kentucky grain farms (and if) it can be shown to be more profitable than conventionally tilled production systems. In last year's funded on-farm project, yields of no-till wheat were usually lower than yields of adjacent conventionally tilled plots. However, profitability is a much more important criterion than is yield itself. No-till growers save a good deal of money simply by eliminating tillage (and the associated equipment, fuel and labor costs) from their production system. On the other hand, no-till growers may spend more on a higher seeding rate, heavier N fertilization, different weed control problems, and perhaps to control other plant pests. Hence the goal of this project is to determine, using field-scale plots on producer's farms, if no-till profitability can be at least as good as profitability conventionally tilled systems.
This proposed project is a three-way cooperation between Wheat Tech, Miles Opti-Crop and the University of Kentucky. The research approach will be the same in all four tests, and overall responsibility for data analysis and research reporting will rest with the University.
If no-till wheat is to become the primary wheat cropping system used in Kentucky, it will have to be shown to be more profitable than conventionally tilled wheat. Of course, high wheat yields are critical for raising profitable wheat. However, it seems unlikely that even the most skillful wheat managers will be able to get consistently higher yields from no-till wheat than from conventionally tilled wheat. Thus, the balance among production costs saved under no-till and the additional production costs incurred under no-till will determine the profitability of no-till wheat.
On the plus side, no-till growers will save a significant amount of money by avoiding tillage operations; they will have lower equipment costs, lower fuel costs, and lower labor costs. On the minus side, no-till growers may spend more for seed, nitrogen fertilizer, wee control and other pest control measures. Thus, it is not at all clear which production system might be more profitable.
Further, it would seem to be important to test the best possible no-till management schemes against the best possible conventionally tilled management programs. In other words, we need to be comparing maximally profitable no-till systems against maximally profitable conventionally tilled systems.
This proposal will allow each of the three major wheat research groups in the state to work in a cooperative way to try to raise no-till wheat as profitably as possible. Before going into our methods, we do note that it is difficult to assign dollar values to topsoil lost by erosion under conventional tillage. It is possible that a grower deeply concerned about soil erosion may be willing to stay with no-till even if it may not show profits as great as conventional tillage.
The four researchers involved in this project will work together to choose two wheat varieties thought to be well suited to no-till production. Wheat Tech and Opti-Crop will each work with their cooperating farmers to plant one test adjacent to their respective research sites. UK plans to work with one farmer in West Kentucky (perhaps Allen and Tim Franks) to plant a test there, and to plant a farm-scale test on the Spindletop Research Farm near Lexington. Each test will be replicated two times, and will also include both conventional and no-tillage. Thus, each test will include 8 strips, and each strip will be a minimum of 3000 sq. ft.
Each research unit will choose the degree of conventional tillage. No-tillage may include stalk chopping if the individual researchers choose to do so. The individual research groups will select seeding rates. In other words, every aspect of the management of the wheat crops will be as chosen by UK for the two UK trials, Opti-Crop for its trial, and Wheat Tech for its trial. Further, management of the two production systems will be expected to be different within each location. For example, Wheat Tech may decide to plant its no-till wheat at 40 seeds per square foot, but to plant its conventionally tilled wheat at 30 seeds per square foot. Meanwhile, UK and Opti-Crop might use still other seeding rates. The point is that each group will manage wheat under its control in the best way possible given the soil and environmental constraints faced at that location. Of course, we will be unrealistic to expect that each test be managed in an identical way, since residual N, corn residue levels, soil temperatures, pest pressures, rainfall conditions, etc. will all differ significantly. Please note: this is NOT intended as a competition among the three groups. Instead, it is intended to facilitate collective efforts to grow no-till wheat at profitably as possible.
Measurements to be made: Approximately 2 weeks after planting, wheat stands will be evaluated at three randomly selected positions within each of the 8 wheat strips at each location. At the same time, overhead slide shots will be take at the same three positions for later evaluation of percent residue cover. Each position will be flagged to allow us to make later counts (in the spring) based on the same set of plants. Early spring tiller counts (Feekes' Stage 3) and mid spring tiller counts (Feekes' Stage 5) will be made prior to each spring split of nitrogen fertilizer. Head counts will be made in May (again from the same area). At harvest, we will record yield, percent moisture, test weight, and kernel size for each strip. Please note: since UK has the overhead camera and tripod setup already in hand, it may be best if UK handles both the measurements made two weeks after planting (at all four locations). Later counts could be made by each of the three research groups.
Economic assessment: Each management practice imposed will be assigned a common cost. That is, if stalks at all four tests are chopped, each test will use the same cost for that operation. In addition, we will use the same market price for the wheat produced at all four locations. Separate budgets will be developed for conventionally tilled and no-till wheat at each of the four locations. We will, of course, work with the appropriate agricultural economists at UK to come up with common cost values to be assigned.
Final Report, August 2000
In 1997, the KySGGA established the goal of having 75% of the state’s wheat acreage managed using no-till methods by the year 2005. Before that dramatic change can occur, producers must be convinced that they will not have to sacrifice short-term economic viability in order to gain the long-term benefits of topsoil conservation attainable using no-till methods. Hence, this project’s goal was to compare some tillage (ST) and no-tillage (NT) wheat production systems, both under intensive management, for profitability.
Table 1 compares the two tillage systems. Yields, on average across the 7 tests, were 4.3 bushels/A higher for ST, resulting in $11.80 greater value per acre. Tillage and stalk chopping cost an average of $25.10/A for ST, while extra seed, herbicide, and N fertility cost an average of $15.50/A for NT. On the whole, this resulted in a slight economic advantage ($2.20/A) for ST methods.
The attached footnotes for Table 1 discuss some assumptions made in this analysis. Most importantly, no dollar benefit was assigned to the topsoil saved by NT methods. Of course, another year’s data could dramatically change the above profit comparison. Market price changes could help to some extent; for example, if the market price had been higher, the comparison would have shown a greater advantage for tillage.
We have now repeated this study at 11 locations over the 1997-2000 growing seasons, so our results should be credible. Our results appear to provide some incentive for growers to consider moving toward a no-till system, particularly if they factor in some value for topsoil conservation. However, we do note this caution: The previously funded on-farm tillage comparisons in the 1996-97 growing season resulted in an average of 65 bushels/A for ST and 58 bushels/A for NT. These grower-managed tests produced 12% less grain under NT management, while our 1997-00 consultant (or researcher) managed tests only produced 5% less grain under NT management. It appears that no-till may respond to more careful management than some growers have been willing to implement.
It would seem that growers may be reluctant to adopt no-till methods for wheat without a clear economic advantage in the short run. Widespread adoption of no-till wheat production may depend on benefits to rotational crops (see Lloyd Murdock’s results).
Table 1. Economic Summary of On-Farm Tillage Comparisons Funded by KySGGA/KySGPC in 1997 through 2000
Assumptions for Table 1
ST, some tillage; NT, no-tillage; OC, Miles Opti-Crop; UK, University of
Kentucky; and WT, Wheat Tech.
Kentucky Small Grain Growers
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