With fuel costs rising, making fewer trips across the field is more attractive than ever. In the past, row-crops have been the main focus of tillage studies. That’s changing as no-till pastures — one aspect of cutting-edge research at the Batesville Station Livestock and Forestry Branch in north-central Arkansas — are being studied. Even row-crop farmers could benefit.

“We started this project in 2001,” said Don Hubbell, resident director of the station. “We’re comparing the differences between three tillage methods on our pastures: conventional, light disk and broadcast, and no-till. If we can use less labor with fewer inputs and get the same crop and animal performance, we’ve reached a key goal. Is there an easier way to deal with pastures and cattle?”

To find the answer, “we’re feeding our steers on winter annuals, putting weight on them to sell in the spring. Also, by looking at the various tillage methods, we’re seeing how each affects soil structure, how the forages perform. We want to know if there are differences in the number of grazing days. We’re also checking water quality issues. How do the different tillage methods affect the composition of soil and organic matter in the soil? How do they affect nutrients in the soil?”

Until the study began, station employees spent several weeks preparing land to plant a forage crop. Conventional till was the norm — “multiple passes over the field, much more labor and fuel, you name it,” said Hubbell.

“When we began the no-till work, we realized quickly we could make a pass with Roundup to burn down and another pass with a no-till drill. That was it. It was a revelation. It frees us to work on other things.”

The set-up

The Batesville-area station, hemmed in by pretty timber-covered, rolling hills, encompasses about 3,000 acres — 1,300 acres are in forage and livestock research, the balance in forestry work.

Cattle are kept on the station’s 250 acres of pasture. The tillage research is on 60 acres of that pasture, broken into a series of 4-acre plots.

“The plots are randomly placed,” said Hubbell. “We didn’t go in saying, ‘This is our no-till plot, this is conventional till.’ There was no cheating in that sense.”

The plots are of sandy, silt loam soils on a 0 to 3 percent slope.

“Many people get caught up in ‘this is how we’ve always done it… Grandpa says it worked, so I’m going to keep doing it.’ But there may be a better, easier, cheaper way to do it. We’re finding that’s the case.”

Animal performance

The project has yielded three years of animal performance data.

“It shows that in a good year with autumn rainfall, when we’re trying to establish the small grains, there’s little difference between the tillage treatments,” said Paul Beck, an Extension animal science specialist.

Last year, September was dry. The no-till treatments emerged while the others didn’t break ground until rainfall. In a normal year, the rate of growth is more even. But in a dry year like last fall, no-till wheat was up in a week and had a good stand.

The light-disk and conventional-till “just sat there,” said Hubbell. “When they did sprout, there was no uniformity. When it began raining, they caught up but were three weeks behind the no-till.”

“Twenty days after we turned cattle out in the no-till plots, we were able to turn them out on the other treatments,” said Beck, who is based at the Southwest Research and Extension Center in Hope, Ark. “That’s pretty significant. Strictly from an economic standpoint, the no-till put us way ahead.”

Beck wanted to know if critics were right. “Many say cattle lead to soil compaction and things like that. That was accepted fact. Before this, there wasn’t much research looking at cattle in no-till systems. The data set we’re compiling is unique. And it’s showing that you can, indeed, continuously no-till and have livestock on the farm.”

Cattle in the row-crop mix?

That discovery could lead to further diversifying row-crop farms, said Hubbell. “Perhaps the cover crop a row-crop producer normally plants will provide cash from feeding cattle.”

Beck said grazing livestock wheat fields “can show profits of $100 to $200 per acre from contract grazing. Given lower commodity prices, that should be quite attractive to a producer with the right soil types.”

As long as cattle are pulled off the plots by first jointing, there is no effect on later grain yields. “For us, that’s about March 15 to March 20,” said Hubbell. “You can graze cattle from October 15 through March 15 and have someone pay you for it.”

It’s also been shown that soybeans planted after graze-out — usually by the second week of May — can yield 30 or 40 bushels. “It can work as a version of double-cropping,” said Beck.

Hubbell said, “Those growing wheat could have livestock enterprises and not hurt their land. They can rent the ground to someone else or buy cattle themselves. The land can bring in income during the off-season.”

Beck was surprised little work had been done on no-till pastures previously. “You’d think someone would’ve checked it out. The lack of interest in it may come from folks constantly hearing, ‘You don’t want cattle on no-till fields. That’s a bad idea.’ We still hear that at conferences and while talking to producers. That perception is pretty firm.”

Soils

Last year, Merle Anders, an Extension no-till specialist stationed in Stuttgart, Ark., began work on the pastures.

“I thought it would be tough. It’s bad enough trying to farm on table-top ground. Trying to do this on a slope seemed really ambitious.”

At the same time, “it was heartening to me there are researchers willing to tackle no-till possibilities on a slope. I had two questions. Can management be refined enough by working with machines to get a good stand? Can we properly quantify the benefits — physical and chemical — to the soil?”

By late summer, Anders plans to measure run-off from the treatments. With that done, “we’ll have an idea of what gravity does in the various treatments.”

Anyone who has been around no-till realizes it leads to better footing, even in rain. Watching the animals on no-till soils, “it’s obvious they’re much happier,” said Beck. “I noticed that during the second year of this study — the change was that quick. The cattle can walk with much less slipping and dipping into the mud. It’s much easier to get across.”

Anders backs Beck’s observation. “Generally, in crop farming, I’ve found it takes two years to see the difference emerge. I call it ‘structural changes’ of the soil. Some argue it’s compaction, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s just gaining structure. You don’t have structure where you till — you destroy structure by tilling.”

Field day/starting early

To make the no-till pasture work, planting begins shortly after Labor Day.

“The only real drawback is the early planting,” said Hubbell. “You’ve got to start planting in early September to get fall grazing. That’s a key to making this work. That’s about 30 days earlier than most plant wheat. We plant early so we can get the cattle out sooner. If we wait until the first of October, we won’t get any fall grazing.

“So we try to get as much gain from the wheat as we can before turning the cattle out. We don’t harvest any grain, this is strictly for grazing.”

The grant the researchers are working under runs out after next year. Currently, Hubbell and colleagues are putting together a multi-state group of researchers to continue the work.

“We plan to expand research here too. We want to do this for at least the next five years,” said Beck. “Some researchers in Oklahoma are interested in working with us and some Ohio folks are looking at increasing grazing days and other things.”

A field day focusing on the no-till pasture work is planned for Sept. 27. That’s early in the growing season, “but it will give visitors the best visual gauge of the three tillage treatments,” said Hubbell. “In the spring, after winter and graze-out, it’s harder to see the differences. But there’s a marked difference in the rate of growth between the three and that’s easy to see in early fall. With the field day, we want producers to see all aspects of this: animal production, forage production, soil structure, economics and an overview of everything. I think it will open some eyes.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com