In the fall of 2009, after perhaps the wettest, coolest season in memory, I sent a brief 10-question survey to the five New England growers who had transitioned to deep zone tillage (DZT) over the previous one to three years. Here are the results of that survey.
Q1: If you saved time preparing fields using DZT, can you estimate how much time you saved?
Answer: All 5 growers said they saved time preparing fields using DZT compared with using a plow and harrow. They estimated that DZT only took 30% as much time as with conventional tillage, or stated another way, they experienced a 70% savings in field preparation time. One grower actually measured out two square acres and prepared one with a plow and harrow and the other with DZT. It took him 1.5 hours to prepare an acre with conventional tillage and only 0.5 hours with DZT for a 67% saving in time. Later in the season, he constructed a hitch so that he could pull his planter behind the Zone Builder, which allowed him to both prepare the land and plant it in a single pass. He then estimated that his time savings increased to 83% using DZT.
Q2: If you saved fuel preparing fields using DZT, can you estimate how much fuel you saved?
Answer: All 5 growers said they saved fuel using DZT compared with conventional tillage. They estimated that DZT only required 40% as much fuel as conventional tillage, and reduced their fuel bill by 60%. One grower’s fuel delivery man actually complained that his farm was not using near as much fuel as it used to! The grower previously mentioned, who compared conventional and DZT on his own farm and actually measured fuel consumption on two square acres, found that he used 72% less fuel with DZT, and estimated that he saved over 77% when he prepared his land and planted in the same pass.
Q3: Did DZT result in any additional crop yields in 2009, and if so, can you estimate your yield increase? [Remember, 2009 was perhaps the wettest year on record, and most conventional-till growers experienced terrible yields.]
Answer: All 5 growers said that they had higher yields in 2009 than they would have experienced with conventional tillage. Two of the growers estimated that DZT produced an average yield increase of 12% and 15%. A third grower said that he experienced the same bumper crop that he had in 2008 (he used DZT both years), while another described his yields as good to excellent. The last grower did not try to estimate the increase.
Q(3b): I also asked them what they felt accounted for additional yields in 2009, if they experienced any, and listed the following possibilities: ability to plant wet fields on time, planting wet fields that wouldn’t have been planted otherwise, and/or better germination rates in wet soils?
Answer: All the growers said that the ability to plant wet fields on time accounted for additional yields in 2009, three of the farmers said they planted wet fields in 2009 that wouldn’t normally be planted in wet years with conventional tillage, and three growers said they had better germination rates in wet soils with DZT. One grower shared these comments. “We were able to plant all crops on time because of DZT. In NH there was a week or two that nobody had corn and we did because of DZT. We also had a great crop of sugar pumpkins…” Another grower shared this comment: “I was able to move around easier and only till what I needed for that specific planting. Typically, I would plow a larger field and harrow it as I needed, moving from one end to the other [to plant]. With DZT, I could move around easier which allowed me to avoid the wet areas until later in the season.”
[Author’s note: It is not my intention to encourage growers to work wet fields with heavy equipment, which results in much more soil compaction than working dry fields. However, in CT it rained every day, or every other day, throughout June and July in 2009. If growers didn’t work wet fields, then they didn’t farm in 2009!]
Q4: Major reasons for additional expenses using DZT?
Answer: The following things were identified as expenses while transitioning to DZT (# of growers identifying specific cost): the Zone Builder (4), residue managers (4), extra herbicide (4), change in fertilizer application method (1), and other (0).
Q5: Major reasons for reduced expenses using DZT?
Answer: The following things were identified as items where savings takes place with DZT (# of growers identifying specific savings): labor (5), fuel (5), machine hours/maintenance (5), fertilizer (2), and other (3). Other places where growers saved money included less cultivation and less watering.
Q6: List major benefits of using DZT?
Answer: Here are the growers’ comments.
- The labor savings is enough to justify DZT.
- I was able to prepare smaller plots, so I was able to move plantings around the farm until it dried out.
- I could plant a little quicker because you have your rows already laid out.
- Corn germinated very well and was uniform in maturity at harvest.
- Reduced wind and rain erosion.
- Reduced fuel, labor and machine hours.
- Ability to make plantings in adverse conditions.
- Increase in organic matter and general soil health (less crusting, etc.)
- No early watering necessary.
- Time and fuel savings
- Better crop stands.
- No planting time lost due to rain.
- Less stones to remove
- No sand blasting of cotyledons in sandy fields.
- Reduced black rot problem in butternut and pumpkins.
- Savings on labor and fuel.
- Very little cultivating.
- Alleviating compaction.
- Helping to build organic matter.
- Much, much better drainage in all DZT fields.
- Lot of Phytophthora in 2008 without DZT, in 2009 it was only in small areas. “I do not think DZT will cure Phytophthora, but I think it slowed it down. One field where we did not use it [DZT], we lost a lot of crop.”
Q7: List the major challenges to learning the art of DZT.
- Cover crop management.
- Getting used to seeing a field that is not plowed and harrowed.
- Building the equipment to make the best of DZT. [This grower likes to improve his machines and uses DZT for non-traditional uses.]
- Learning what cover crop to plant. Starting 6 months ahead of time by getting your cover crop down right – bump up density of the rye.
- [If I had it to do over,] I would buy one so that I would get it in the fall [rather than May] so that I could play with it and get it set up before planting time.
- Make sure the rye is dead. You need to spray Roundup as early as you can in March or April, because it takes longer for the cover crop to die at that time of year.
- Heavier cover crop works better for weed control – 130 lbs rye per acre. We did have some problems with weed control, mostly grass. [There are new, low-rate, post-emergence herbicides that provide great grass control.]
Q8: What type of information should Extension provide to help
growers transition to DZT?
Answers: Listed in order from most requested to least.
- Equipment requirements.
- Benefits and uses of DZT.
- List of Suppliers, dealers, manufacturers.
- Cover crop management.
- Contact information for DZT growers in New England.
- Herbicide programs.
- Let folks see DZT work [DZT in action].
- The results of this survey.
- Time from tillage to harvest.
Q9: What is the best way for Extension to get the information
Answers: Listed in order from most requested to least.
- Small localized meeting at farms that use DZT (twilight meetings).
- Visit growers and talk about DZT
- Newsletter articles.
- Networking between growers
Q10: Other comments about DZT (i.e. did you like it, or will you keep doing it)?
Answers: All 5 growers indicated that they were very happy with DZT and will continue to use it in the future. Here are their comments.
Grower #1: I did like it and will continue [to use DZT]. Big leap of faith – fields looked UGLY because I let cover crop get too high. Every plot germinated very well despite the wet weather. Plants seemed to mature at different rates, but I harvested at the same time. I definitely thought the strip tillage was beneficial – even in my little garden [mixed veggie area].
Grower#2: I would never go back to conventional tillage. The benefits from DZT have been outstanding. At present I use it for sweet corn and winter squash but will be looking to expand use of the system.
Grower #3: There’s no turning back .. [This grower uses DZT for every crop on his farm, including perennial fruit crops like strawberries and tree fruit, and for vegetable plasticulture systems.]
Grower #4: It worked real well.
Grower #5: We had great results with DZT this year. Will keep doing it. Will get better and easier as years go by. Many uses for DZT – not just pumpkins and corn. We grew the best [longest, straightest] carrots I ever produced using DZT.
One final note: There will be at least 12 New England farms using DZT in 2010 and Extension Educators in all 6 states are now promoting this system of reduced-tillage. This system is gaining popularity because it is faster, easier, more energy efficient, better for your soils, increases crop quality and yields, and saves you money. The New England DZT growers have listed over 30 reasons why DZT is better than conventional tillage. What more can you ask of a tillage system?
I will soon be posting contact information for DZT growers in New England on our UConn IPM Web Site (www.hort.uconn.edu/ipm/). These experienced DZT growers invite you to contact or visit them to learn more about DZT.
I will also post a list of equipment dealers and pictures of DZT on the web site and we will soon be hosting additional twilight meetings throughout New England (e.g. Wilson Farm, Litchfield, NH, June 2, 2010, 5:30-7:30 PM). We invite you to come and see what DZT is all about and hear why it is a better tillage system than the one you are currently using. Finally, I’ll leave you with this quote from Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest… that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
T. Jude Boucher, Agricultural Educator-Commercial Vegetable Crops, UConn Cooperative Extension, Vernon, CT. May 2010
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