The message from no-till legend Rolf Derpsch is the same all over the world: Protect the soil. His expertise spans four decades and many consider his research work to help farmers adopt no-till as nothing short of remarkable.
“He’s helped make no-till successful in any environment, from the Arctic Circle to tropical climates,” says Brian Lindley, executive director of the Kansas-based No-till on the Plains.
Derpsch researched and developed soil conservation systems for the German Agency for Technical Cooperation for 35 years. His work spanned Somalia, Brazil, Paraguay and Germany. Though he retired in 2001 to Asunción, Paraguay, he globe-trots frequently as a freelance consultant.
“Forty years of research and practical experience by farmers have shown us that no-tilling is the only way to improve soil health and avoid erosion and degradation,” Derpsch says. “No-till conserves and builds soil organic residues from both cover and cash crops.”
Soil health became an obvious priority early in his career. Derpsch noticed how double cropping and intensive tillage destroyed soils like never before in southern Brazil.
While most scientists experiment by changing a single variable, Derpsch did a complete overhaul.
“Change the whole production system at once,” he says. “You need to change the crop rotation and take advantage of cover crops, a specialized planter and a different fertilizer program.”
He worked with a neighboring farmer to test his principles. It wasn’t easy for the pioneers. “Very few recognized the erosion-control potential of this technology,” Derpsch says. “The least we were called was crazy.”
Comparing plowing, reduced tillage and no-till, Derpsch was pleased to discover comparable yields between treatments. In drier seasons no-till outperformed conventional tillage.
A global movement was born.
Initially, no-till’s primary goal was erosion control. Today, it’s a holistic management approach.
“Rolf understands that no-till is not a single practice,” says Jay Fuhrer, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bismarck, ND.
Instead, Derpsch combines practices like no-till seeding, crop rotations, pest management, residue management and cover crops under the umbrella of soil health.
“He’s talking big-picture management,” Lindley says. “He helps people understand that no-till is more than just not tilling.”
Conservation tillage mistakes
One of the biggest mistakes Derpsch sees growers make is failing to adopt a complete paradigm shift. “Conservation tillage is an oxymoron. It’s an expression that should disappear from our vocabulary,” he says.
Farmers practicing rotational tillage will never reap the full benefits of the system.
“Farmers need permanent, continuous no-till, including root tillage through intensive cropping and cover cropping and in earthworm tillage or ‘biological tillage,’” he says.
No-till is practiced on about 70% of arable cropland in countries like Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand.
“In less than a decade, these countries will probably reach above 90% adoption,” he says.
Yet in the U.S., no-till accounts for only 25% of cropland acres.
“There are many other countries where the technology is only beginning,” he says. “Worldwide adoption of no-till is only about 9%, so there is still a lot to do.”
Fuel savings is oneof Derspch’s primary no-till selling points. Conventional farmers use about 66% more fuel than no-tillers, he says.
“Imagine how much fuel American farmers could save if approximately 100 million acres under conventional tillage practices would shift to no-till,” he adds.
Some growers have cut machinery use in half, he says.
“A grower needs to decide if he wants to be a farmer or a tractor driver. Conventional farmers spend twice as much time sitting on their tractors to till their land,” Derspch says.
Farmers could dedicate the time saved to improving their farm management or engaging in other income-generating activities – or going fishing and spending time with their families, Derpsch quips.
In addition, no-till benefits the ecosystem.
“No-till is the only farming system known today that fully meets the requirements of a sustainable agricultural production even under extreme soil and climate conditions,” he says.
After 45 years, “we still have so much to learn,” Derpsch says. “The possibilities of discovering, breeding and developing green manure cover crops to include in no-tillage systems are infinite.” No-till is no longer a temporary fad, he says.
Derpsch delivers these concepts to audiences around the globe. Folks like Lindley and Fuhrer invite him to speak because of his hefty resume and decades of global experience, but also because he is a “true gentleman” who “gives the gifts of knowledge.”
“He’s got more experience than anyone else,” Fuhrer says. “He gives growers the confidence to go forward.”
10 Critical Steps for No-Till Adoption
Before you begin no-till:
1. Improve your knowledge of the system, especially in weed control. Plan at least one year in advance for your change to continuous no-till.
2. Test your soil. Aim for a balanced nutrient profile and pH.
3. Avoid soils with poor drainage or drain them first.
4. Level the soil surface.
5. Eliminate soil compaction issues.
6. Produce the largest possible amount of mulch cover.
7. Access a no-till planter.
8. Plan to start no-till on 10% of your farm.
9. Plan to use crop rotation and green manure crops.
10. Be prepared to learn constantly. Watch for new developments.
– Rolf Derpsch, global no-till expert
Derpsch core principles
No-till expert Rolf Derpsch recommends these ways to improve the quality of no-till:
- Practice continuous, permanent no-till.
- Use low-disturbance seeding equipment.
- Use diverse crop rotations with a variety of cover crops.
- Retain soil surface residues and keep the soil covered year ‘round.
“Almost all of no-till’s advantages come from the permanent soil cover, and only a few from not tilling the soil,” Derpsch says.