Thursday, November 12, 2015

Better Know a Farmer: No-Till Guru Bill Crabtree

In this issue of “Better Know a Farmer”, I contacted Bill Crabtree to learn about “no-till farming”. If you’re saying to yourself, “No-till? What are you waiting for? Till when? It doesn’t make sense” then you’re not alone. Bill has an awesome website which highlights his expertise in this field (get it?? Field? Because he’s also a farmer? Amazing pun!!). He lives in Western Australia (WA), but he provides consulting services worldwide helping farmers adopt no-till farming. He’s actively engaged in social media using the very apt twitter handle @NoTillBill, so we “met” through Twitter. I learned a lot in this interview and the spouse added a few questions, too. I read it with Bill's Australian accent in my head :)

Q: What’s your background and training? What do you grow on your farm?

A: I grew up on the land, I was doing night shift ploughing our very sandy fragile soils to 3 AM with no cab, no lights, and a modest jacket at the age of 14 on the south coast of WA. I went to University of Western Australia twice - B.Ag.Sci and M.Sci and now enrolled in a PhD in No-Till at same university. Eight years ago after energising the no-till movement for most of my life and helping farmers make lots of money at 47 years old, I realised I needed a retirement plan as $200,000 in assets was not going to go far.  So, with the help of Rabobank, I borrowed very heavily, bought a farm in the driest region of the globe, and have been 100% cropping on the desert’s edge not far from Yalgoo - East of Geraldton in Western Australia.  It was risky but it has paid off. The only profitable crop in this heat and dry is just wheat.  So, in contrast to my agronomic training, I have been growing continuous wheat for 8 years and it has been a huge success with no-till and full stubble retention. I grow a little of canola, triticale and lupins, but 95% wheat [BioChica's Note: if you don't know what triticale and lupins are, you're not alone :) I had to look those up!]

Q: What’s no-till farming? Why is it important?

A: It is seeding with less than 20% topsoil disturbance with narrow metal openers (sharp 12 mm narrow points or discs) and with no soil cultivation after the last crop. [BioChica’s note: I wanted to add a picture of tilling equipment for farming but couldn’t find a freely available image, so you can see one here on the John Deere website]. Tillage, or cultivation, used to be needed to soften the soil enough to be able to evenly place seeds at the right depth in the soil and for mechanical weed control. Neither of these factors are now required due to better mechanical tools and herbicides. Within a few years of no-till the soil softens through organic residue retention that feeds the bugs in the soil which make the soil spongy and ready to rapidly soak up heavy downpours of rain.  This softer/spongy soil can then store more water at depth and mitigate against droughts. Symbiotic plant root relations also form that are otherwise destroyed by tillage, fungi are increased as the decomposition of the organic matter becomes more of a steady release of energy into the soil food web that is very complex and not well understood but well appreciated by farmers. [BioChica’s Note: Bill has a YouTube video on this topic which you can view here.]

No-till has many other immediate farm benefits also, including less fuel use, better timing, higher whole-farm yields and greater economic efficiencies.
Field of wildflowers on Bill's farm

Q: So basically, you harvest the crop from the previous season, you leave all the stems and roots behind, and the next season you plant right on top of that? Does no-till work with only some types of crops? I imagine that it wouldn’t work in regions of the world where they don’t have a winter/rainy season?

A: No-Till works for all crops really, but some horticultural crops, like potatoes, onions, carrots etc, need tillage to harvest these crops. But, perhaps greater than 99% of global cropland could be no-tilled.  Some soils and environments do not necessarily give yield increases to no-tillage, however, all soil in all environments are protected and conserved by no-tillage practices.  In some places it takes longer for no-tillage to give a yield benefit. In most places the whole farm yield benefit can be immediate and significant - like in my state!  One region where no-till struggles to reward farmers is the wet Red River Valley in Manitoba, Canada (and this likely extends into Minnesota as well). The heat units are limited, the season is short, the valley floods to some degree in April/May most years and the minute the snow melts the race is on to get a crop out of cold wet soil before the season is over again in cold September. The land is fertile and the residue that no-till helps to maintain can keep the soil cool and damp when the race is on to get the crop ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

No-till actually works best in regions globally where the rainy seasons are unreliable and spasmodic. The ability of the long-term no-till soil-biology complex to suck up rainfall quickly helps to drought-proof the crops. Additionally, arbuscular mycorrhizae and similar symbiotic bug activity in the rhizosphere (root zone), enable the crops to partner with soil-biology to extract more water than is normally available to crops from the soil. While not miraculous it is not what happens when farmers do tillage and it can result in some very nice and increased water use efficiency by crops over tillage based farming systems.

Q: What do GMOs have to do with no-till farming?

A: GMO’s can have nothing to do with no-till farming, as in South Australia where they are illegal and no-till adoption is about 90% adoption. However, these farmers would love to have GMO crops as they allow them to use less herbicides and manage herbicide resistance better.  In Canada both RoundUp Ready canola and Liberty Link (glufosinate ammonium tolerant) GMO types has ensured their herbicide resistance issues have been better managed than in most countries who have abused them agronomically by over-relying on one type. [BioChica’s note: I’ve written about the RoundUp Ready trait here].

Q: Then why do GMO advocates claim that GM Round-Up Ready crops allow for no-till farming?

A: Because it is technically true. GM Round-Up Ready means that farmers can seed straight into undisturbed soil and control their weeds in-crop with Round-Up, which is no-till.  But ‘easy come, easy go’. It is my experience that when farmers, by default, have no-till happening for them and they do not adopt it thinking about the technique and understanding the benefits that it offers that they can then easily jump back into the tillage habit. Some of these farmers do not learn the long-term benefits of the no-till system. While Round-Up Ready crops sure are of valuable assistance in helping farmers adopt no-till as it can give excellent weed control, but it does not necessarily guarantee high quality no-till.

A clear example of this is in Argentina where, due to government policies, farmers grow soybean continuously season after season. Being a legume the soy fixes lots of nitrogen and effectively this ‘lights a fire’ in the soil of fast microbial activity and this burns up the soil carbon quickly and leaves the soil with very little soil cover. The soil is then readily exposed to soil erosion and there are more nitrates for loss to the environment. The microbes effectively cultivate the soil. So, you could easily argue that a common Argentinian no-till practice is only a small step up from tillage based farming.

Q: Are there any aspects or practices from no-till farming that people could adopt in their backyard gardens or planter-boxes?

A: Sure, just like the mulch on the surface of the soil is magic, it stops evaporation and feeds the soils bugs! No-tillage, and the mulch that it maintains, makes earthworm numbers explode. Earthworms are reported to be on top of the soil food chain and this gives us great comfort that no-till, even with herbicide use, is good for the soil microbial hierarchy. Similarly for no-till farmers, backyard gardeners also need to keep an eye out for crop nutrient deficiency symptoms! Particularly for NPKS - the big four nutrients in soil science. [BioChica’s note: NPKS stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur, and is an abbreviation used for labeling fertilizers]
Field of Wheat on Bill's farm. Or is it a field of dreams?

Q: The  International Agency for Research on Cancer’s recent assessment of glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) classified the compound as a probable carcinogen? Why are you trying to kill us all by forcing farmers to adopt this compound and how much is Monsanto paying you to do this?

A: The idea that glyphosate is a probable cancer causing agent is fanciful in the context of its registered use pattern.  But, it could probably be right if you are going to inject glyphosate into our cells nucleus or vacuole.  In this context it probably does cause DNA damage - similarly to injecting sodium chloride, detergent or dozens of commonly used household products, into the same place.  So the idea of suggesting that using glyphosate over a crop is the same as injecting glyphosate into our cells is quite misleading and points to activism by those who suggest it.  For the Cancer branch within WHO to come to this conclusion is almost disillusioning.  It suggests to me that someone is being quite mischievous and unscientific and has an agenda and it equates to fearmongering. I have emailed them for clarification and they responded!  I asked them for the specific information lead them to conclude this. They then said I should read the whole 92 page document. I could find nothing that supported the idea that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. But most concerning is that they have referenced the discredited research by Seralini and indeed they have used 7 of his papers in their study. Seralini is a known anti-GM and and glyphosate activist.

No farmer on the globe is forced to use Monsanto’s technology, they have the choice, if the technology does not benefit the farmer then he walks away from it - well that’s true for most of the farming world anyway! :)  Although in Russia they are banned from using the technology.  Some other countries have followed their lead.

I have not received any funding from Monsanto, ever!  I have visited their facilities, as any person interested or working in agriculture should.  But I have visited John Deere many more times.
Field of Wheat on Bill's farm

Q: As we all know, nothing on the internet is false. I’ve read many times that Round-Up used on wheat is leading to leaky-guts, is increasing gluten allergies, and is killing us all. If there’s no GMO wheat on the market, why is Round-Up used on it?

A: There is no GMO wheat on the market! Although it looks like drought tolerant genetically engineered wheat will be released in 2016 in Argentina. Round-Up is not killing us, despite a concerted campaign to convince people otherwise!  Over-eating and smoking definitely kill people, in contrast glyphosate use in no-tillage has greatly increased food production, lowering the price of food, allowing people to eat more and therefore killing them with obesity - haha :).  But seriously, Round-Up has been safely used on wheat pre-harvest in Canada since the late 1980’s. It is used to control weeds in a 100 day crop growing window and for more information on why and how farmers do it see;

Q: It sounds like no-till farming is amazing: builds the topsoil, reduces erosion, environmentally friendlier, etc. It even seems to me like there’s less work involved, because you don’t have to till the land. Why wouldn’t a farmer adopt the method? Are there any drawbacks to no-till farming? Or is no-till farming like puppies, i.e. everyone thinks they’re awesome?

A: No-till was demonised 30 years ago in my state by experts saying that “it did not work before and it will not work now” and “all your nice new no-till machines in two years time will be parked under a big tree, behind a big shed and going rusty”. Indeed, it took a huge effort and a lot of courage by a few to remove those philosophical obstacles. Most of the technical obstacles have been removed and no-till works all over the globe but it is challenging in wet and cold areas that lack heat units. In these areas the soil can get real cold and wet and stay wet and cold for a long time and no-till, with residue retention, slows evaporation and helps to keep the soil wet and cold for longer. This makes it a bit harder for crops to get growing fast. Soil disturbance, or tillage, can blacken the soil and help it absorb heat and get the crop growing faster sooner. For different reasons there are times when tillage is also needed in my hot and dry state on a small portion of the land, and I have blogged on this here:

Q: My spouse is from West Texas, where they famously had the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s. Some people think it might come back with Texas’ drought. Do you think no-till farming can help?

A: Sure, and it does, I have farmer friends on Twitter in that region and I have also visited there several times. There are some very good farmers doing a great job of no-till there. Each year no-till farmers congregate at Salina, Kansas and share their knowledge together, indeed I have spoken at this event in the past


  1. No-till farmer here. Nice to actually read about this stuff, as most of my experience and knowledge about the subject just comes from my dad and from my own experience. It's what we've been doing for past 15 years or so on our farm.

    Although I would like to raise one point I didn't quite catch in this article, and it's the weed control. Here where I live, in Finland, we have to spray the field with RoundUp every spring a day or two before sowing, to kill and prevent any other vegetation from competing with the farmed crop (say, barley or canola). While all this is really easy, I find it a bit problematic that there just isn't (at least I don't know, which I hope is the case) any way around using RoundUp. I find using RoundUp a bit problematic in the long term, as it could cause a RoundUp resistant weed to emerge, which would obviously make the no-till farming useless.

    1. Hi Lauri, see Bill's comment below. Thanks!

  2. Hi Lauri, congratulations, there are not many no-tillers in Finland i believe. I do know a very good no-till farmer in Søren Ilsøe in Denmark and a friendly network of no-till farmers across EU in - may i suggest they would be a good source of knowledge sharing. In Australia we are fortunate to have a wide range of chemistries to work with and to help make no-till more sustainable. We can use paraquat and diquat as good herbicide resistant management tools. In Canada glufosinate ammonia is a useful third knockdown tool also. If neither of these are an option to back up the glyphosate then i would still encourage continued use of glyphosate, but be sure to try and keep weed numbers low with crop rotations, timings, residual herbicide use, hay (if possible) and cover crops (if you can get them to work for you and make money from them) etc. By keeping weed numbers low with different tools then you can quadruple the life of glyphosate - which is, as we both appreciate, a most magnificent piece of chemistry. Your soil is better for your no-till efforts. All the best. No-Till Bill :-)