Agronomy Library > Soil Conservation

Reducing Tillage With No-Till Pastures
Author: Ron Heller
Date Created: March 10, 2006
Last Reviewed: February 27, 2007

“Re-seeding pastureland never seemed so easy,” says Warren Garnier, farmer and a director with the Wolf Lake Grazing Reserve near Bonnyville, Alberta. “The test strip we did last fall is up and growing great. We wanted to seed it all in the fall but couldn't line up a machine. We still had excellent soil moisture conditions for seeding this spring, so we got it done, and now with some decent rain it looks like we’re set for success.”

“The key to that success appears to be moisture conservation,” says Ron Heller, extension agronomist for the Alberta Reduced Tillage Initiative (ARTI), Vermilion. “By eliminating the traditional tillage break required to take out the old stand and do seedbed preparation for a new one, the Grazing Reserve folks capitalized on the most important nutrient for plant growth...H20."

The main advantage of less tillage is improved soil moisture. Tillage disturbs the surface soil structure in a field, losing moisture to evaporation and runoff. Reducing tillage allows the seeding zone to remain firm yet moist due to better infiltration and the higher residue cover associated with no-till. This advantage is optimized when pasture lands are sprayed with a herbicide to remove the existing stand, then re-seeded with low disturbance equipment.

The grazing association wanted to try something different because their pastures were declining and it was costing a lot of money to break and seed new ones, mainly because of rock. The past few years have been very dry and grazing was poor. In late summer, about 250 acres of selected paddocks were taken out of production with Roundup herbicide @ 1.5L / acre (about a $20.00/acre cost, XXX including custom application). The plan was to re-seed later that fall before freeze-up.

“The challenge was finding the right equipment to handle the rock problem,” says Garnier. “We didn’t want to disk and pick rocks. Broadcasting the seed and harrowing didn’t seem a wise option. Good forage seed is expensive and we knew it would grow if we could just get it in the ground and covered.”

Warren phoned Heller about their search for a low disturbance grass seeder. He was able to respond by offering to tryout the Flexi-coil 8000 air seeder through ARTI. "Our mission is to reduce the amount and intensity of tillage, and perennial forage crops like pastures provide a link to reaching our goals. Low disturbance seeding into sod is one method of approaching it,” adds Heller.

Flexi-coil, a leading manufacturer of direct seeding equipment and partner of ARTI, is making their machines available for promotion of reduced tillage practice. The company has an opener design that works well in most sod conditions. The technology is referred to as ‘angle disc’ which offers ultra low disturbance and good penetration over other disc, knife, or hoe/shank openers. The Flexi-coil machine used by Garnier’s group has on-row packing and double shoot capability.

“In the trial last fall, we tried another no-till drill, but even with the mounted coulter-bar to open a furrow through the sod, placement of seed was not acceptable,” says Garnier. “You can really see that now this spring. Where we seeded the test strips with ARTI, the grass catch is what we were hoping for.”

Commenting on the trial, Heller explains, “The Flexi-coil 8000 is a compact model that allows easy moving around and setup for producers to tryout some of their no-till ideas. I like the idea of being able to place small forage seed accurately, just where it needs to be to take advantage of the early spring moisture. Add to that the opportunity to precision-place a good fertility package at the same time, and I think the system is sound. The important activity is removing the old grass ahead of time with a non-selective herbicide like Roundup. This will conserve significantly more soil moisture for better forage establishment than a tillage-based undertaking.”

Fall-removal before seeding the next spring is about the best method. “Dormant seeding before freeze up can work, perhaps for grass species more than the legumes such as alfalfa,” says Heller. “Soil quality and fertility will count, but soil moisture is the big factor. With timely rains, you might be able to get lucky and do it all in one season, but that would not be the normal expectation in Alberta. There seems to be an advantage in having the old sod rot for a time before re-seeding, so spraying a herbicide the year ahead of seeding makes sense. Also, regrowth intervals from haying or grazing will be different for each forage species and year to year, which affects the application timing for herbicide removal, so caution and experience are necessary.” Heller suggests trying a small parcel of pasture before attempting the larger fields.

“We made a big commitment to trying this when we decided to spray out the pasture last year,” admits Garnier. “It was difficult to find a custom operator willing to take on the project, mostly because of the rocks. Trying out the ARTI machine gave us a chance to see what might work best. Now that it is seeded, I feel much better.”

For farmers looking at better ways to manage their forage and pasture land, when it comes to re-seeding, perhaps trying a bit of no-till seeding would be worthwhile. As a reduced tillage agronomist, Heller is ready to discuss the options with producers and put them in touch with others who are trying it. More information on this project and the benefits of reducing tillage in forage establishment is available by contacting Heller at his office in Vermilion.