When Jason Cavadini, assistant superintendent of the CALS-based Marshfield Agricultural Research Station, first started working at the station in spring 2013, he was told that no-till wouldn’t work in the area, with its heavy, poorly drained soils. But he still wanted to give it a try.
“Here in central Wisconsin, a big concern is, what do we do with the water? How do we get it to drain better? If no-till allows the soil to do that naturally, in our opinion it’s the best way,” says Cavadini. His interest in the method stems from experience on his family’s farm near La Crosse, where they have successfully used no-till planting for nearly 20 years.
Conventional tillage often involves turning and pulverizing the soil before planting with multiple passes of a tractor to chisel-plow, disk and smooth out the field. There are many advantages to this approach, including setting back weeds, helping the soil to dry and ensuring good seed-to-soil contact. However, it’s also fraught with issues such as soil compaction and erosion.
No-till, on the other hand, involves the use of a planter that seeds directly into the soil without the complete disruption and inversion of the surface. This alternative option, which has been shown to work well in other areas with other soil types, has reduced environmental impacts and helps build long-term soil structure. There’s also an economic benefit. “Fewer trips across the field with equipment means less fuel used,” notes Cavadini. “We have cut fuel usage and labor associated with spring planting by more than 50 percent since implementing no-till.”
Making the switch to no-till, however, involves some trial and error. Cavadini thought, “What better place to give it a try than the Marshfield station?”
“We started a group we’re calling Central Wisconsin No-Tillers,” Cavadini says. “We set a planter here on the station with different combinations of no-till tools. After we finished planting in the spring of 2014, we invited people to the station and told them what we found with our research planter. About 10 farmers showed up, but it was a very productive meeting, and we tried to address things that they were questioning.”
When Cavadini held a meeting for the group the following year, 46 farmers appeared.
So far, the no-till approach is working well at Marshfield, and the research station has expanded its use to include more crops. Corn was the starting point—“We experienced some of our highest corn yields ever on the station this year in no-till fields,” notes Cavadini—and now about 80 percent of the station’s plantings are done with no-till, including soybeans, wheat and alfalfa.
“A long-term, no-till soil that is firm at the surface but takes in water readily is what we are really trying to achieve here,” Cavadini says. “If we are successful, that will solve a lot of the challenges that central Wisconsin farmers face here every year.”