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Profile in Soil Health - Jerry Grigar

NRCS State Agronomist Jerry Grigar on his farm in Gratiot CountyNRCS State Agronomist Jerry Grigar credits over 30 years of no-till on his 140-acre farm in Gratiot County for higher yields in rain-challenged growing seasons.

After two years of excellent harvests, heavy early rains delayed planting for many Gratiot County farmers and a mid-summer dry spell further hurt yields for many growers, said Rossman. Countywide, corn yields were down about 25 to 30 bushels an acre compared to the county’s average yields. There was a lot of variation in yields depending on whether farmers were able to plant before wet weather set in, said Rossman.

“2013 was a disappointing year for our producers here,” said Dan Rossman, MSU Extension agent for Gratiot County.

Grigar harvested 200 bushel-an-acre corn in 2013. He credits getting his crop in early and no-till for his high yield. “I was quite happy with that,” said Grigar. Contrary to popular belief, Grigar’s fields dried out sooner than surrounding conventionally tilled ground, allowing him to plant sooner. Water was able to infiltrate the ground easier on his no-till land due to improved soil structure and higher organic matter, said Grigar. When fields dried up in the summer, Grigar’s no-till fields also retained more moisture than conventionally tilled fields.

“I’ve seen it so many years when it’s dry, corn in surrounding fields will turn yellow while mine doesn’t,” said Grigar.

Grigar made the switch to no-till after a bus trip to Pennsylvania in 1982 to observe long-term no-till farming at Penn State University. No-till is a method of planting where the soil is not disturbed, in conventional tillage the soil is turn over to create a seed bed. Grigar has used no-till exclusively on his land, with the exception of chisel plowing a field one year to control wild carrot, ever since attending the no-till tour.

Rossman estimates that about 30 percent of farmers in Gratiot County use no-till on soybeans but only about 10 percent use no-till when planting corn. At the very least, Grigar’s yields in 2013 show high-yield corn is possible using no-till.

“Those that were no-tilling probably had a little advantage last year,” said Rossman.

No-till is a valuable practice for maintaining and improving soil health. Leaving residue on crop fields increases organic matter which retains more moisture. Not disturbing the soil also improves the soil structure which improves water infiltration. Conventional tillage leads to higher soil compaction due to more trips over the field and continually breaking up the soil. Less soil disturbance using no-till is also beneficial to biological activity in the soil. Leaving soil in place is beneficial to a wide variety of soil organisms ranging from earth worms to bacteria. These organisms break down organic matter and make more nutrients available to crops. Grigar has increased the organic matter in his fields about 1 percent since adopting no-till. That might not sound like a lot, but increasing organic matter in loamy soils is not easy, said Grigar. It is estimated to take 60 tons of organic material on an acre to increase soil organic matter by 1 percent.

Grigar has experimented with a number of practices to improve his soil and profits. Like many farmers he has increased his use of cover crops in recent years. He had his best soybean crop ever following a cover crop of rye, radishes and oats. Narrow strip cropping, especially corn and soybeans has also been encouraging. Corn in the edge rows benefited from extra sunlight and the neighboring beans benefited from the shade. Planting corn in narrower twin rows in narrow strip cropping is another method Grigar is using to increase production.

After 30 years of results, Grigar is convinced that no-till works on his farm. There is still some misperceptions about no-till and more research is needed, he said. “A lot of conventional wisdom on cropping needs to be re-evaluated for long-term no-till.”