No-till crop production may not be the golden boy of U.S. agriculture yet, but it's certainly no longer the redheaded stepchild.

In fact, U.S. farmers increased no-till acreage from 16 million in 1990 to more than 50 million in 2000.

“Conservation-till accounted for more than 36 percent of total planted acreage in the United States in 2000,” says John Hassel, Executive Director of the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in West Lafayette, Ind.

Hassel presented a status update on conservation tillage to the 24th annual Southern Conservation Tillage Conference for Sustainable Agriculture recently in Oklahoma City.

“From conservation tillage we need to move to no-till,” Hassel says. “And the next step should be continuous no-till.”

The trend appears headed that way. Hassel says mulch-till and ridge-till acreage has remained static for the past few years as no-till increased.

Hassel says soybeans account for the largest number of acres in conservation tillage. Corn is second.

“With Roundup Ready varieties likely to be available next year, conservation tillage should increase in wheat. Also, we're seeing a steady increase in con-till cotton.”

Hassel says the Midwest continues to experience rapid adoption of conservation tillage for soybeans. “We need more site specific solutions for corn to spur conservation tillage acreage,” he says.

He says the Great Plains needs a more diverse crop rotation program to promote no-till production. “That seems to be occurring. We also need to reduce or eliminate continuous wheat.”

In the Southeast and South Central regions Hassel says farmers are adopting conservation tillage on more cotton acreage.

“Bt and Roundup Ready varieties encourage conservation tillage in cotton,” he says. “Many are using a cover crop as part of their rotation plan. but farmers must consider moisture loss from the cover and how that might affect cotton. Irrigation water supply will concern many farmers in the region.

“Strip-till peanuts also are increasing in the Southeast and Southwest,” he says.

“No-till acreage also is on the rise in the Pacific Northwest.”

Farm legislation that mandated residue management as part of a farmer's conservation compliance has helped promote conservation tillage methods, he says. But so have economic factors.

“Conservation tillage adoption depends on economics,” Hassel says. “It saves time, labor, equipment energy and moisture. We figure total savings on crop inputs will range from $20 to $40 per acre. On top of that, farmers practice resource conservation with reduced tillage systems. That's a long-term benefit.”

Obstacles that may prevent adoption include risk factors, Hassel says. “Farmers may be concerned with potential reduced yield, weed control problems, poor seed germination, increased chemical costs, and expense for specialized equipment. Also, some landlords may not support reduced tillage.

“And tradition sometimes plays a role in a farmer's reluctance to switch from conventional tillage practices.”

Hassel says studies indicate no-till adoption will continue into mid-decade. By 2005 he expects no-till soybean acreage to increase somewhere in the 32 percent to 65 percent range; corn by 18 percent to 30 percent; cotton by 8 percent to 20 percent, and small grains by 10 percent to 20 percent. He also expects a significant increase in no-till grain sorghum acreage.

“We need a farm bill that promotes no-till,” he says. “The 1985 to 1990 legislation had a significant impact on conservation tillage.”

He says other factors that will influence no-till adoption include payment for carbon sequestration and reduced costs of burndown and other herbicides. “Farm size will be a factor,” he says. “Larger farms are more apt to adopt no-till. Uncertainty of petroleum costs also will affect no-till acceptance. And support from farmer alliances and organizations will be critical.”

Hassel says the United States leads the world in acreage in no-till acreage at 52.2 million. Brazil has 33.3 million; Argentina produces 22.8 million acres of no-till crops; Australia, 21.2; and Canada 10.1.

“We have 80 percent of the world's no-till production in the Americas,” he says. Australia has 15 percent. South America shows the fastest growth in no-till adoption. South American farmers are coming to the United States to learn about no-till technology.”

ron_smith@primediabusiness.com