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It Might be Time to Consider No-Till, a WSU Study Shows

PULLMAN, Wash. — Agricultural economists at Washington State University have concluded that no-till production not only conserves soil but also helped experienced no-till growers cope with recent low wheat prices.

Doug Young, professor of agricultural economics; Herb Hinman, a Cooperative Extension agricultural economist; and Oumou Camara, a former graduate student in agricultural economics, reported on extensive case studies in 1998 and 1999 of six experienced no-till growers in the 19- to 22-inch precipitation zone of eastern Washington and northern Idaho and four growers in the 8- to 13-inch zone of eastern Washington.

The growers were selected from recommendations provided by WSU Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Those who agreed to take part in the study were questioned extensively about their farming practices. Their books were given a thorough examination.

When comparing these farmers’ production costs with Cooperative Extension enterprise budgets for conventional tillage in the same part of the state, the researchers found successful no-till growers generally achieved lower production costs and higher yields.

The average winter wheat production costs for the six growers in the higher precipitation group was $2.65 per bushel. That amount was 30 cents lower than conventional tillage costs and more than a dollar below the average 1993-97 market price for soft white winter wheat of $3.72.

The six no-till growers also had relatively low production costs for spring crops, but the margin was lower than for winter wheat.

Two of the low-rainfall growers grew no-till winter wheat at an average cost of $2.82 per bushel, slightly lower than the Extension conventional tillage estimate of $2.98 per bushel.

The researchers identified several keys to success. For one, successful no-till growers were very frugal with machinery.

“Many bought used machinery and then re-tooled it in their own shops,” Young said, “especially their no-till drills. As a result, they were able to keep their acquisition costs down.”

Another key was finding a no-till system that worked on their ground. “For some people,” Young said, “this involved supplementary tillage for weed and disease control before they used the no-till drill. Others were able to make 100 percent no-till work for them.”

They found weed control methods that were minimally costly for the problems they had. Successful no-tillers also tailored soil fertility management to their particular fields and weather.

The researchers hope the findings may encourage wider adoption of the soil-saving technology, first developed to arrest soil erosion.

Only 5 percent of the of the growers in the Pacific Northwest practice no-till, according to a 1998 survey conducted by the national Conservation Technology Information Center, up from 2 percent in 1989. Nationally, U.S. growers used no-till systems on about 16 percent of cropland in 1998 compared with 3 percent in 1989.

Young feels low and wide fluctuations in grain prices have discouraged growers from making the move to no-till. “People are hesitant when the returns are so risky. I think they are especially concerned about the high investment costs. New no-till drills can cost from $40,000 to $100,000. That is a very high investment to make when you are selling wheat for $2.50 per bushel.

“Farmers ask me if this is the time to try no-till. It is if they can move over that transition period of high investments. They might have to do other things to help pay for that no-till drill.”

“One farmer in the study was custom-seeding for other farmers all the way from Paso Robles in northern California to the Canadian border to cover the cost of his drill, making it free for his own use.

“Other farmers bought older drills and rebuilt them in their shops. They went through several design modifications to make their drills work for them. Some hired custom seeders or rented a drill from conservation districts for a year or two.”

Starting out small might be the best way for many growers to get into no-till. “Have someone come in and do some custom seeding, maybe winter wheat on pea ground. Wait until your cash flow is better to make the necessary machinery purchases.”

The economists’ research is summarized in two new bulletins from Washington State University Cooperative Extension: EB1885 “Economic Case Studies of Eastern Washington No-Till Farmers Growing Wheat and Barley in the 8-to-13 Inch Precipitation Zone” and EB1886 “Economic Case Studies of Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho No-Till Farmers Growing Wheat, Barley, Lentils and Peas in the 19-to-22 Inch Precipitation Zone.”

To order the printed publication, call the WSU Cooperative Extension Bulletins Office at 1-800-723-1763. Cost is $1.50 each plus shipping and sales tax for Washington residents.

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