“My farming life really changed with the advent of Roundup and the John Deere 750 no-till drill,” says Decatur, IL, farmer, conservationist and philanthropist Howard G. Buffett. He hasn’t looked back since.

He farms continuous no-till corn and soybeans with a John Deere 1770 no-till planter with trash cleaners and no-till coulter in front, Keeton seed firmers, spiked closing wheels and a drag chain behind. He applies a 7-24-7 starter at planting, and used a growth regulator for the first time this year. For beans, he uses a John Deere 1990 air drill, wheat rotation and cover crops.

About half of his nitrogen goes on in the fall as anhydrous ammonia with a John Deere 2510 H toolbar. In the spring he applies 30 lbs. of 28% N with his chemicals. He sidedresses the balance using a John Deere GS-2 RTK system, “which really makes a difference,” Buffett says.

 

Organic-matter calculus

“Soil is what stands between us and starvation,” says Decatur, IL, farmer and conservationist Howard G. Buffett.“Depleted soil is the documented legacy of many failed civilizations, including the Middle East, Greece, Rome and Mesoamerica. Half of the U.S. native soil organic matter’s been lost to tillage in the past 200 years (see Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David Montgomery,for example).

“The good news is that no-till and strip-till have increased by 17% and 63%, respectively, since 1982, halving domestic cropland soil erosion,” Buffett says.

“Most of our soils have lost half or more of their organic matter reserves because of historic land misuse and soil mismanagement, says Rattan Lal, Ohio State University professor of environment and natural resources.

“Compare your soil’s organic matter to Mother Nature’s,” advises Brian Lindley, executive director of No-till on the Plains, a no-till advocacy and education group. “If native habitat is balanced at 6.5% soil organic matter and your farm is at 4.5%, your soils are degraded. Surely 4.5% is far better than 3%, but they’re still not fully healthy. Even conservation-tillage practitioners still lack the proper amount of crop residue and cropping intensity to significantly build soil organic matter and profits. The U.S. must practice quality continuous no-till, not rotational tillage. Otherwise we’re simply advancing our soils’ demise.”

We have made progress, Buffett adds, “Since 1987, each U.S. bushel of corn has required 27% less irrigation water, 37% less energy and 30% fewer total emissions to produce,” he says. “U.S. farmers produced more food on less land with 2% fewer inputs, from 1950 to 2008.

“Unfortunately, the 1970s grain embargoes on the former Soviet Union prompted former customers to rapidly till less-efficient land overseas. In the 1980s, the U.S. idled nearly 37 million acres, and that was offset by 41 million new-crop acres elsewhere, often at the expense of wildlife habitat, marginal soils and virgin forests.

 “Focused, efficient food production on the most appropriate land prevents destroying other land with higher ecologic value,” Buffett says.