Chapter 11

To Till or Not to Till

Bob McNabb didn’t mind people thinking he was a few fries short of a Happy Meal when he decided he wasn’t going to till his fields anymore.

He might as well have been a Tom Sawyer character lying in a field, hands clasped behind his head, working a piece of straw in his mouth, and declared he’d discovered a new way of farming that didn’t require work.

“I had neighbours beside me, and I know they thought I’d lost my mind,” said McNabb, who retired from farming in 2014 and now lives with his wife in an apartment in Vancouver overlooking English Bay.

He laughed recalling the time his wife was taking their kids to the end of the driveway to catch the school bus. One of the sons looked at a neighbour’s beautiful black field, then at his family’s untidy field with the stubble sticking up like breathing tubes, and then back at the neighbour’s black field. “Do you think dad screwed up again?” he asked his mom. (McNabb wasn’t asked to explain the “again” part.)

“The typical thing was black summerfallow. You’d sow your crop into the black dirt and everything looked beautiful,” said McNabb, who farmed near Minnedosa.

McNabb had been away from the farm for seven years while establishing an aviation career. When he returned in the 1970s, he picked up the same farming practices he grew up with. “And the first time I was doing summerfallow, I was thinking, watching the front wheels of the tractor go round and round, doing this doesn’t make sense to me.”

He was part of a small band of farmers scattered across Manitoba and North Dakota who were all asking the same thing. “I think what motivated us was a desire to do something different,” McNabb said.

McNabb was one of about a dozen farmers in Manitoba who began using their fields as laboratories, and a similar number in North Dakota. Others tried not tilling but quickly abandoned it when they didn’t like the results, but the likes of McNabb were hard-core and persisted. These were also pre-internet days but the no-till pioneers heard about each other and got in touch via land phones. They met and formed a small organization called the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association (ManDak).

In Manitoba, they were led by Jim McCutcheon of Homewood, dubbed “the father of zero till.” His counterpart across the border was Bob Nowatzki of Langdon, N.D. They would end up changing the world.

McCutcheon, who passed away in 2015, was one of the first on the continent to try zero till. Soils were blowing away. It was a painful sight. University of Manitoba agronomist Elmer Stobbe told McCutcheon about a practice being tried in Argentina and Brazil that didn’t require tillage. It made a lot of sense. In 1973, McCutcheon seeded his first crop directly into the previous year’s crop residue.

While Stobbe, who died in 2019, was a big supporter of zero till, he was an outlier among agronomists in the early stages. Zero tillage wasn’t one of those top-down changes where academics and government and industry dictate the way it is to the people on the ground. It was the other way around. Farmers had to convince them: academics, government, industry.

“Fellows like Jim McCutcheon made their own tools because the industry and academia were not on board with this stuff,” said John Heard, soil extension specialist with the Manitoba government. “Farmers lived that revolution themselves and then the others caught up.”

Jim Halford, who farmed near Indian Head, Sask., and who was another zero-till pioneer, remembers the “lukewarm” reaction of many soil scientists to zero till, like those at the University of Saskatchewan. “Let’s just say they were not overly enthusiastic,” said Halford.

Part of it was the scientists were just working on other research, he said. Another part of it was they thought zero till required a skill and management that would be too difficult to implement. “It was a pretty radical change,” he said.

It wasn’t just industry and academic people who weren’t enthused. Neighbours didn’t think much of zero till either, said Halford. “The prize thing of a farmer’s life was to have that black summerfallow. If you didn’t have that, you were looked down upon in the farming community. It was hard to break away from that and have rough looking fields with residue.”

Some people doubt a zero till-like revolution could even happen today. Advisors for most farms now have vested interest in either maintaining the status quo or needing to be in charge of change.

ManDak would organize and pay for its own meetings—what corporate entity was going to sponsor them? It didn’t have government support. They operated on a shoestring budget. They would meet and share their experiences and toss around ideas, like on an online chat room, and a body of knowledge grew. They were paving the way for farmers’ exit from summerfallow.

SUMMERFALLOW TODAY IS called the great catastrophe of Western agriculture.

“It was just a tragic period in Western Canadian history,” said Robert Stevenson, who farms near Kenton, straight north of Oak Lake, in western Manitoba.

Soils blew away. Summerfallow enabled the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and was behind the “Dirty Thirties” moniker. Western Canada lost more than half its organic matter and it was even worse south of the border.

Summerfallow was supposed to give the land a rest and rebuild moisture reserves. It did rebuild moisture but you had to keep tilling the weeds or they would suck up the moisture you were trying to save. But when you kept tilling land, you lost moisture, too. The loosened and exposed soil also became more susceptible to wind and water erosion. Loose soil tempted the winds and the winds couldn’t resist.

“You talk to farmers of my generation and we all remember the last big windstorm in our farm in our area,” said Stevenson. He recalls the windstorm of 1985. “Even though we were 100 per cent no-till, we hadn’t been in it long enough to protect our soil and we had parts of a few fields that blew but nothing like it would have been,” he said.

Soil at Risk, the 1984 report headed by Senator Herb Sparrow of the Standing Committee of Agriculture, pegged soil productivity loss from all forms of soil degradation at more than $1 billion per year for the Prairies, nearly $2.5 billion in 2020 dollars.

A new study estimates losses of $3 billion annually from productivity losses on 10 per cent of Canada’s cropland that is moderately to severely eroded.

Summerfallow had become the custom. In 1967, the Prairies left 25 million acres to summerfallow, including 2.6 million acres out of about 17.5 million acres of agricultural land in Manitoba. Manitoba wasn’t the worst offender because fields in the eastern Prairies are more often too wet than too dry. Even so, Manitoba farmers consistently topped three million acres of summerfallow per year from 1954 – 1963, more land than was seeded to wheat. Summerfallow peaked locally at four million acres in 1970; 37 million acres across the Prairies.

But by 2020, it was over. Summerfallow was down to just 28,000 in Manitoba, and no more than two million acres Prairie-wide.

Today, more than 75 per cent of Prairie cropland is under some form of minimum tillage, and more than half is under zero till.

MCNABB RECALLED THOSE early zero-till days.

“My first no-till was one field in 1978. I rented a drill from a dealer in Russell, an English-built Melroe-Bettinson model 702, 13-feet disk drill, and we sowed barley into standing stubble,” left over from a low erucic acid rapeseed crop. “I could not believe the response and that just set the hook deeper. The second year we went to a third of our acres, and the third year we went full bore.”

McNabb used to hire retired farmers to work his fields while he was helping an aerial applicator. He recalled the reaction of one of the farmers who lightly harrowed the residue on his fields after an aerial seed application because his fields were so wet. “He thought it was absolutely crazy, but later on, at harvest time, he could not believe it. By today’s standard it doesn’t sound like much, but back then when you got 40 bushels an acre of canola, you were doing pretty good.” That was nearly double the provincial average yield at that time.

It required a change in thinking and perhaps even a cultural change, said Gordon McPhee of Dauphin, now retired, another of the original zero till pioneers.

“It was a big step to move away from a field where you could seed the black earth and see the rows of grain coming up, to seeding into a stubble field and not being able to see the germination above the stubble,” he said.

McPhee had his whole farm in zero till by 1980. Was he nervous about that?  “It’s just like you taking a new job or writing a new book where you put a bunch of effort and time and money into it,” he said.

“The neighbours were skeptics, and rightly so, and we wrestled with straw spread, and with chaff spread, and we dealt with them through homemade devices. Compared to now, it’s unbelievable the difference. Now we can pound the whole crop to virtually nothing, spread it evenly the full cutting width of the header, and do a good job and its gone. But at that time straw choppers and chaff spreaders were not designed like today. “

One of the misconceptions they had to overcome was people’s belief that fields would become compacted if they weren’t tilled. “The thinking was you needed to loosen that topsoil,” McPhee said. 

McPhee started his first minimum till field after a dry year and little snow. He knew cultivating the soil was “chancy” and would dry it out even more, especially on the headlands where he made his turns. So he cultivated at an extremely shallow depth and put heavier springs on the disk drill to seed into the undisturbed soil. 

“We tried to get disks on seed drill to penetrate the undisturbed soil and put the seed in there. And that gave us good germination, quite a bit better than the neighbours,” he recalled. “That got me thinking, why not eliminate cultivation and just seed into the undisturbed soil?”

They couldn’t have done it without glyphosate. Herbicide wears the black hat in the popular media but in this case it was like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans riding to the rescue. Glyphosate, or Roundup, as the Monsanto brand is called, facilitated zero till and started the process to preserve and regenerate soils after more than a century of abuse.

McNabb’s first zero till fields used the herbicide Gramoxone. It was a “dirty one,” McNabb said. “It was just a flash burn, like Agent Orange.” He used it only a couple years.

Monsanto introduced the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup in 1974 but it was too expensive for grain farming on the Prairies. It was off the charts price-wise, upwards of $30 per litre, and used initially in spot treatment and fruit crops.

McNabb switched to glyphosate but cut the rate to a quarter of a litre per acre, and mixed it with another herbicide for some “pretty decent results.” The eventual price reduction in glyphosate ushered in the zero tillage. In 1985, Roundup was priced at $33 per litre. By 1992, it was down to $10 per litre and $6.60 per litre by 2011. Now it’s about $3 per litre.

ManDak met frequently with Monsanto and lobbied government for action to reduce prices with some success, but didn’t really see much of a price drop until the patent came off.

While zero-till eliminated or reduced the need for tillage, it increased reliance on herbicides to control weeds, much to the chagrin of farmers who hate having to shell out for inputs. But it’s a necessity, short of hand-picking weeds, to zero till farm on a commercial scale today. And zero till reduces other costs. One study determined zero till increased herbicide needs by 50 per cent, but decreased fuel use by 40 per cent, machinery hours by 45 per cent, and labour by 30 per cent.

A 135-page report was produced in Alberta in 2009 on the impact of zero till over a span of 15 years. The Alberta Reduced Tillage report attributed yield increases from zero till of 3.5 per cent for wheat, 6.2 per cent for barley, 7.9 per cent for flax, 4.6 per cent for peas and 13 per cent for lentils. The best results for zero till were found in the black and grey soil zones like those that cover Manitoba.

Netting out costs and payments, returns were up 30 per cent for wheat, 25 per cent for peas but just five per cent for canola due to a spike in fertilizer prices.

On the fuel and labour front, the study found fields of zero till averaged just 3.5 passes, compared to 5.8 passes for minimum till fields, and 7.5 passes using conventional tillage.

The loser? Soil erosion. Zero tilled reduced soil erosion into waterways by 60 – 90 per cent, including the runoff of particulate and total phosphorus, it said. Building up organic matter over time should reduce dependence on commercial fertilizer.

Zero till isn’t perfect. It results in the loss of more soluble phosphorus that runs into waterways each spring. There is more on this issue in a chapter on wetlands. Phosphorus in the soil is taken up by the growing plant roots and a portion is left after harvest in the straw at soil surface. It not tilled into the soil. Phosphorus tends to stratify or build up at the soild surface where it is at higher risk of runoff with surface water.

Herbicide resistance is another looming problem and could make farmers go back to tillage for weed control.

Not everyone has come aboard the zero-till train in Manitoba. Noticeably absent are Red River Valley farmers.

There’s a reason for that, said Brunel Sabourin, a private agronomist with Antara Agronomy Services in St. Jean Baptiste.

Zero till has been tried on and off in the valley for years but it’s been a struggle, primarily because of the heavy clay soils. It’s no secret zero till is toughest in moist conditions and valley fields stay wet longer because the heavy clay doesn’t let water seep through. If you leave a layer of straw or residue covering the ground, that makes for an insulating layer and the sun can’t warm and dry the soils beneath. It delays planting.

“In the Red River Valley, we can grow longer season crops like corn, soy and dry beans if we can start early enough. But that usually requires black soils that warm quickly,” Sabourin said.

Brunel said zero till was really out of the question during the wet years, particularly the 1990s. But it might be worth a try again today with the climate of the last few years trending to hot and dry.

HERBICIDE PRICES WERE one problem that had to be sorted out for the pioneers of zero till. The other was finding equipment to open the soil, place the seed at the right depth and cover it over to get even germination. 

It took a lot of experimentation. Zero-till farmers didn’t know how seeders would handle the straw. Would a disk type opener still work, or would it push the straw in with the seed? That’s what happened, placing potentially diseased organisms next to the seed.

Many farmers started out with the Haybuster. “You either used a Haybuster-type drill, or you made your own,” said McPhee.

The big farm machinery manufacturers weren’t interested in zero till. Credit goes to the many small manufacturers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan who helped those zero-till pioneers. One was metal fabricator Atom-Jet Industries in Brandon, which produced openers that placed the seed in a firm seedbed.

McPhee and McCutcheon worked extensively to make an opener that was narrow enough and placed the seed in perfect soil contact with the right amount of pressure on the packer, and Atom-Jet helped them. Once Atom-Jet made an opener, next came the carbide tip, which is virtually indestructible. Other major contributors included local firms like Flexi-Coil of Saskatchewan, farmer-owned Bourgault Industries of St. Brieux, Sask., which was bought up by John Deere, and Conserva Pak of Indian Head, Sask., the brainchild of farmer Jim Halford. “It started with little guys. Big guys were making their money doing the conventional thing. For them, it was harder to change,” McNabb said.

Halford brought forward his first Conserva Pak seeder in 1989. It allowed a farmer to plant the seed and fertilizer underground, and appropriately spaced, with minimal disturbance of the topsoil. In 2007, he sold his air-pump, zero-tillage machine design, which he patented, to John Deere.

However, David Lobb, soil scientist with the University of Manitoba, is critical of the equipment adapted for zero till on the Prairies.

Ontario gets its zero till equipment from the U.S. but the Prairies developed their own implements. “The units developed out here tend to be very high disturbance so that you move a lot of soil,” he said. Too much soil, he said.

“You talk to farmers in North Dakota and they look north of the border and say, ‘No, that’s not zero till. That’s high disturbance direct seeding,'” Lobb said. “Essentially, we have a very high disturbance seeding system that we’ve developed. There are lots of issues with that.”

Lobb did a study of high and low disturbance zero till in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and concluded what’s called zero till seeding in Manitoba “causes as much disturbance as (tillage by) a mouldboard plough.” The mouldboard plough “is an iconic implement everyone equates with destruction of soil.” It moves a lot of soil but over a very short distance and with little variation in distance moved, by comparison to high disturbance seeders, Lobb said.

Hilltops where soil erosion has been the worst are still not producing like they should after 20 years of zero till because soil disturbance is still too great. “We still have a problem. We haven’t been able to build up organic matter on areas that need it most because we still have a bit of erosion there,” Lobb said.

It’s certainly true that zero till didn’t catch on east of Highway 34 the way it did on the west side of the province. As well, many Manitoba farmers got away from zero till to some degree because it was so wet from mid-1990s until only the last few years, say former ManDak members. But it has started to bounce back in a significant way with the dryness of the last few years, they say.  

McNabb agreed more can be done but thinks farmers deserve credit, too. Producers put their livelihoods on the line and made zero till work, he said.

Farmers brought about change “in something that we really believe in” while “struggling just to keep the financials together,” he said. “You’re trying to do something that is radical and you’re financially vulnerable, as most farmers are.”

He shudders to think of the consequences if they hadn’t forced those changes. Prairies might be a desert today.

“For those of us who have lived through this and made it work and made change, we feel pretty strongly that it has been massively beneficial to society and food production,” McNabb said.

The Prairies use more hoe-drill style seeders than the disk seeders popular in the U.S., he said. In McNabb’s case, the hoe-drill style works better because of his rocky soils.

ANOTHER TOOL ZERO TILLERS love is GPS. It came around at just the right time, said Robert Stevenson of Kenton. “When we were in standing stubble, we just couldn’t see where we were,” he said.

Stevenson wasn’t among the first handful of zero tillers but was part of the couple of handfuls of farmers who followed shortly after. He started zero till with his brother in 1984 and served as ManDak president from 1985 until the end of the decade. He and his brother had talked about zero till in the 1970s with their father but were set back when their dad died in 1979.

Older farmers were especially against zero till because they were well established and it posed a threat to their practices. They had accumulated all their equipment and now zero till threatened to require more purchases. It’s no different than the difficulty today weaning society off fossil fuels for electric batteries.

“I made lots of mistakes,” said Stevenson. “You would have a field full of thistles, and you’d get told that you were creating a weed problem and how that farm used to be looked after properly and what you’re doing just isn’t right. We had crop insurance adjusters tell us that zero till shouldn’t be covered by crop insurance.”

Another benefit to zero till is it promotes crop rotations. That’s because the plant residue left behind allows potential disease to hang around, too. To ensure against that, farmers must be disciplined about rotating crops. So farms became more diverse. That meant growing peas and beans, and embracing corn and soybeans when varieties adapted to Manitoba came along.

“We used to grow wheat two to three years in a row before zero till. We’d cultivate it in the fall a couple times so the straw was buried and go back in with same crop, but you couldn’t do that with zero till. You couldn’t grow wheat three years in a row. There would be too much disease,” Stevenson said.

But thanks to zero till farmers had more moisture to work with that they could use to hit higher yields. “We save a lot of moisture with zero till, at least an inch per tillage pass. So we always have moisture to get a crop established and we didn’t before,” said Stevenson.

His farm has been under no till for 35 years now, out of the 140 years it’s been farmed. “We know we’re going in the other direction building up organic matter from the straw that’s going back in the soil, and some of it’s from adding fertilizer.”

The Prairies were originally about eight per cent organic matter and fell to four per cent after a century of tillage, organic matter is estimated to have dropped to just two to three per cent. Stevenson said his fields fell to between three and four per cent organic matter, and his testing indicates it has increased to four per cent or slightly more since he started zero till.

“It was a big risk. It was a big risk jumping in. But it turned out wonderful for agriculture. It’s been wonderful for farmers across the Prairies, and beyond,” said Stevenson.

MANDAK, OR THE Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, was established in 1978.  It alternated annual meetings between Minot, N.D. and Brandon.

“People in the association were very independent-minded but the contacts I made there really helped me in my farming career,” said Stevenson. “It’s something that we’ve really lost in agriculture is that co-operative spirit. We got our advice from each other.”

Stevenson believes it was the only cross-border soil conservation association of farmers in the world, although he heard Denmark and Sweden now have a similar association.

There were pockets of farmers elsewhere discovering the same thing about tillage, not just in Manitoba and North Dakota. It was the coalescing of the problems of soil loss and dry conditions with the emergence of glyphosate.

There were other zero till associations. In Alberta, they had the Alberta Conservation Tillage Society (ACTS), but it was a very small group. Don Lobb farmed in Huron County, Ont., the father of soil scientist David Lobb. David said his father, in 1978, was the first farmer in southern Ontario to convert his entire farm to no-till. Don travelled across the border to trade ideas with Michigan and other Great Lakes area farmers who were also experimenting with no till. Don Lobb set up the Huron County Soil Conservation District, and hosted field-scale research plots for zero till research. He is also responsible for starting the Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario.

But no other zero till group was as influential as ManDak. Governments on both sides of the border encouraged ManDak to put their findings into a manual that could be shared with other farmers. ManDak did that over several years and its manual was distributed across the Great Plains and beyond after it was translated into different languages.

In 1987, producers in Saskatchewan invited ManDak to hold its annual meeting and workshops in Regina, instead of Brandon or Minot. A total of 1,200 farmers turned out, and that accelerated the spread of the zero till movement across Western Canada. ManDak was phased out about five years ago, a victim of its own success, past members say. Zero till had become so predominant that there wasn’t a need for the association anymore.

However, members held a reunion in 2017, and the results weren’t surprising. About 25 former members turned out. They started tossing around ideas again.

“We talked about using cover crops, either with the crop or that came after the first crop was harvested,” recalled McPhee of Dauphin. “The thinking was we should have something growing on the soil as long as possible.”

How would that work? “In some case, you may seed a crop between rows of corn, then as the corn is taken off the other crop comes along and may be harvested. Or it may be just killed in spring and that leaves a root mass to seed into,” McPhee said.

In other words, regenerative agriculture.

There are many different opinions on regenerative agriculture. While many farmers are keen, there’s skepticism among soil scientists, or at least an abundance of caution. All of which sounds like the political climate when zero till began.

Regenerative agriculture goes hand in glove with zero till. Both focus on growing something in the soil for as long as possible. Regenerative agriculture means putting a diverse mix of biomass back into the soils. The thinking is fields are kept too clean with herbicides with only a few crops grown. So some farmers have begun intercropping, laying a crop between rows, as McPhee said. Forages could be used in rotations, especially if herbicide resistance requires them for controlling weeds.

That puts more organic matter into soils and a more diverse biomass, and that should increase fertility and make for a healthier, more adaptive soil. Letting livestock roam the fields is even better and their manure can enrich the soil. It’s almost like turning farm fields into giant soil-manufacturing compost barrels. Farmers would not only be sustaining their soil but rebuilding it, is the hope. Longer growth with cover crops also holds down the soil longer to prevent erosion.

LUCAS MENOLD, PRESIDENT of the Manitoba Forage Seed Association near Carman, said most of the cover crop species grown in Manitoba are for seed, which are then exported to the U.S., rather than being grown as a soil cover.

A cover crop can be used to feed livestock if you have enough time, to either graze it or cut it for hay. But most often the crop isn’t harvested for grain.

After soybeans or edible beans or potatoes, farmers will seed fall rye just to stop the land from blowing away, said Menold. A potato digger disturbs the ground quite a bit, and on sandy land that is prone to blowing. The cheapest, easiest way is to spread fall rye on top before the potato harvest and the action of the potato digger is enough to bury the seed. Or a farmer will come around afterward and seed it and then work it in. Some take off the fall rye for grain but most spray it out in spring. “It’s just meant to hold the soil down,” Menold said. 

For fall rye seed growers, regenerative agriculture is a decently sized market, and the industry is seeing small increases in demand for small grains like fall rye and even triticale. But 80 per cent of cover crop seed produced in Manitoba goes south.

“The issue here in Canada is our short growing season,” Menold said. “By the time we harvest our crop, to try to get a cover crop seeded, and growing it big enough to do anything, it can be done but it’s a lot harder because we don’t have much time.”

Many farmers are undeterred. These are still early days for regenerative agriculture, said zero-till pioneer, McPhee.

“What we are trying to do is duplicate the way the Prairie soils were built,” he said. “Whether science will find out whether that’s important or not, time will tell. Once again, it’s just part of the experimentation to see what makes a difference either short or long term.”