Seeding in the stubble No-till: Farmers find that planting in the remains of last year's crop, instead of plowing it under first, is cheaper and erodes the soil less.

June 08, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

EASTON -- The wettest spring in local memory is sputtering toward summer across the Delmarva Peninsula. Row by row, acre by acre, farmers are struggling to get the spring crops into the ground -- a job they'll finish in mid-July, weather permitting.

Out here, spring crops are corn and soybeans, the stuff that feeds chickens. Corn is generally in the ground by mid-June; soybeans can go in as late as mid-July. But everything this year is running late, say such farmers as Glen and Greg Gannon of Talbot County, whose spring planting has been delayed by days and weeks of rain -- nearly 6 inches since May 1.

"We've got a lot more to do," says Glen Gannon. "There's thousands upon thousands of acres on the Shore that has not been touched yet. There's going to be a lot of late crops."

Like a lot of Shore farmers, the Gannons use a mix of conventional tillage and what's known as no-till farming. No-till is the practice of planting this year's crop into the stubble of last year's. Instead of plowing a field several times before planting, a no-till field is treated with herbicide to kill weeds, then planted. The stubble, or dead plants from a previous crop, acts as mulch for the new plants.

The Gannons and their four employees farm about 4,000 acres in Talbot and Dorchester counties. No-till is an efficient farming method for corn and soybeans, they say. No-till is also the method preferred by Geno Lowe, who, with his grandfather, farms about 750 acres in Wicomico County.

"With the cost of equipment, it's cheaper now to no-till it, rather than go over each field four times," says Lowe. In conventional tilling, "you'd have a minimum of three [plowings] before you planted it."

Says state agriculture statistician M. Bruce West: "Probably over half of corn and soybeans [in Maryland] is no-till."

Although no-till is widely used now, it took farmers awhile to get used to it, says Jim McFadden, a retired Chevron worker who helped bring no-till to the Eastern Shore.

"The biggest challenge was to get farmers to change their minds," he recalls. But he's quick to add, "Farmers here in Maryland have a greater intelligence to accept something new than anyone else."

What they have found, say farmers and agriculture experts, is that for corn and soybeans, no-till is more productive per acre than conventional tillage.

Besides better yield and less effort per acre, no-till has other advantages, particularly on the Lower Shore, says Ronald Mulford, an agricultural researcher at the University of Maryland's Poplar Hill Research Farm in Wicomico.

"Down here on the Lower Shore in these sandy soils, you get wind erosion," he says. No-till stops wind erosion by planting into the ground cover left by last year's crop, he says. "You haven't stirred the ground up -- you've got a mulch out there."

No-till also keeps moisture in the ground. The same mulch that blocks the wind holds water for the crop, he says.

The practice depends to some extent on crop rotation. When soybeans are harvested in the fall (usually from October through Thanksgiving), Mulford says it's best to let the field rest unplanted over the winter.

That creates a more fertile field come spring.

And although Shore farms, like others in the United States, produce more now per acre than they did even 20 years ago, some things never change for the farmer.

"Despite all the stuff, all the technology today -- it's still dictated by the weather," Greg Gannon says. "You never know when it's going to turn into a rainy day."

Or a rainy spring.

Pub Date: 6/08/96

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