The new economics of zero-till
By Bruce Barker
High energy costs are making zero-till look better and better.
The energy crunch hit agriculture hard, with fuel and fertilizer costs taking
a big bite out of revenues. That, in turn, has many farmers looking at ways
to reduce input costs. Coming off a 2004 that was one of the coldest in Manitoba,
followed by 2005 that was one of the wettest and 2006 that was one of the driest
summers, farmers are left even more challenged to manage risk.
"It's a new reality out there," says Scott Day, a diversification
specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI) at
Melita, as well as a zero-till farmer from Deloraine, Manitoba. "In early
2006, the price of nitrogen was eight times the price of wheat on a per pound
basis. What this means is that the high protein winter wheat that was coming
off the combine on our farm in 2005, full of fusarium and worth only a buck
a bushel – it was cheaper to use wheat as N fertilizer than actually buying
On the bright side, glyphosate can be found for less than four dollars per
acre, almost less than a gallon of diesel fuel, and that makes zero-till much
more attractive compared to only a few years ago.
Using rental and custom charges as provided by MAFRI, Day says a 400 horsepower
tractor will cost about $130 per hour to run and a 50 foot cultivator $30 an
hour in 2005. This unit should do about 25 acres an hour, all labour, fuel and
road transport considered. That works out to a cost of about $6.50 to $7.00
an acre just to go out and putter around with the cultivator, keeping in mind
that cost goes up when you use smaller equipment.
By comparison, using a field sprayer should cost somewhere around $1.25 an
acre, which leaves plenty of room to pay $4.00 or $5.00 an acre for glyphosate
and still come out money ahead. "Also once you till, you usually have to
do more than one operation to prepare for seeding, while you usually only have
to spray once in the fall or spring to be ready to seed," says Day.
In 2000, Day took these custom charges and applied them to his farm that had
already been in zero-till for some time. Then he applied the costs to a friend
who was farming the same 1500 acres but was using a bigger tractor and was conventionally
tilling the land. His soil was such that he still was producing excellent crops,
but his estimated annual tractor costs were about $35,000 higher than Day's.
"Now there are many other things to consider, like my higher cost of glyphosate,
but it gives you an idea of the margin you have to work with when you stop tilling,"
Day says getting over the psychology of tilling takes a mind-shift as well.
Tilling the land provides a sense of accomplishment. A grower can look back
and see exactly what is being killed. The soil smells good and the tractor cab
can be like a real sanctuary these days. "I often wonder what spraying
would be like if the weeds died as soon as the spray hits them," he says.
Today, Day says the recent cost squeeze makes zero-till look even better, with
some of the biggest farm tractors costing up to $1000 just to fill the fuel
tank and $1000 just to replace the cultivator shovels.
The last big expansion in zero-till in southwest Manitoba came in 1999, when
the southwest corner had a major flood situation. That year, Day managed to
get most of the farm planted while a few of the conventionally tilled fields
around him remained untouched. He says his long-term zero-till fields definitely
had better internal drainage and trafficability, and the few others that were
zero-tilling at the time saw the same. Those observations encouraged others
to continue down the zero-till path despite the wet weather.
For those fields that were not seeded in 1999, the weeds became a jungle, but
it was mostly these odd wet weeds like Canada fleabane, curled dock and even
cattails. There were times in the summer of 1999 when Day thought there would
be no hope of getting a crop in the following year as well. However, glyphosate
was still effective on those 'wet' weeds even when they got to a very large
size, and the next year they were not an issue at all. In fact, Day says that
2000 produced a very good crop for most of the zero-tillers, and weeds and wet
soils were not an issue.
The other lesson Day learned in 1999 is that fertilizer strategically placed
while seeding is the best way to go. In 1999, he had 1000 acres of land that
was N fertilized in the fall of 1998 and the spring of 1999. When the rains
came, most of that input was lost. Now, his area is mostly one pass seeded with
fertilizer banded while seeding.
Day says that some people mention tillage as a necessary evil to warm the soil
to grow a crop, and while this may be true for some of the row crops, for the
rest of the Manitoba crops, he says there is not a lot of evidence to support
this. As an example, he looks at the Minnedosa region; it has the shortest growing
season and one of the coldest environments of anywhere on the prairies. Yet
it was one of the pioneering areas of zero-till and has been so ever since.
Day says he and his neighbours grow heat loving crops, like dry beans and sunflowers,
in the southwest corner and they seem to do just as well as those crops grown
in cultivated rows.
Day adds it is important to use high water-use crops and forages whenever possible
to help manage excess water. Alfalfa can be an excellent crop in a zero-till
system. He has seen and found that it is possible and easy to zero-till directly
into sprayed out alfalfa and that it is an excellent crop to include in a zero-till
system. Other high water-use crops include sunflowers and corn or other types
"If you have a rotation that is prominent with beans and flax in heavy
clay soil, you are going to have problems with too much water sooner or later,"
he says. "Including heavy water-users in the rotation helps manage that
Day says that residue management is important. He sometimes bales straw from
the previous crop if he is going to zero-till beans. He says he has never had
to burn a field or cultivate it just to get rid of straw, despite having some
pretty heavy crops.
The last point that Day believes should be made with zero-tilling heavy soils
is that specific equipment should be considered. Day does not think a good zero-till
drill has yet been developed for the heavy clay soils. "Many of the machines
we have right now work great outside the heavy clay but in wet conditions they
are too heavy, they don't handle mud and they are big anchors when they get
stuck," says Day.
He has seen two seeders he believes might work on heavy clays. One is from
a farmer who ingeniously uses a regular medium-duty cultivator, but with ship
chains for packing: the same as the old drills almost a century ago. The chains
do not plug, they always pack at the same level regardless if going through
a dig or over a hill. The unit has a single shoot knife, fertilizer is dropped
in front of the shank while seeding. It is light, cheap, simple and robust.
Day says the drill works extremely well.
He also likes a new prototype drill from Australia that recently won an inventor's
award there. It is a disc drill but the discs are more like revolving stars
so they clean as they turn. This stubble star drill, as it is known in Australia,
has performed well in very heavy stubble and difficult trash and soil conditions.
The drill has yet to be commercialized. Day says these are just a couple of
examples of unique thinking that farmers come up with when they are presented
with the problem of zero-tilling in heavy wet soils.
In today's agricultural climate, Day says the new reality is a different economy,
one based on energy. He thinks that new reality makes zero-till look even better,
for economic reasons. Day says zero-till may not always provide the same yield
as conventional crops, depending on soil conditions, but it certainly is becoming
a much more economic way to farm.
"What crops we grow will depend on how much energy they use or how much
energy they make, whether it is energy for our bodies or for our cars. We already
know that, with all things considered, zero-till farms consume about 15 percent
less energy (University of Manitoba data) to produce the same units as conventional
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