Fifty years ago, Christian County farmer Harry Young Jr. planted the nation’s first commercial no-till crop—0.7 acres of corn. It changed agriculture forever.
“No-till is one of the top five agricultural advances of the past century,” says Lloyd Murdock, University of Kentucky Extension soils specialist. “We weren’t able to control soil erosion until no-till came along, and if the erosion had continued, Kentucky producers would not have been able to compete well with the rest of the nation because of our sloping topography and eroded soils.”
Two of the first developers and promoters of no-till have died since its beginning 50 years ago: Harry Young and University of Kentucky field crops specialist Shirley Phillips. Their efforts live on from that piece of agricultural history.
“Today, we sometimes take no-till production for granted, but 50 years ago, it was a revolutionary idea,” says Bob Pearce, University of Kentucky Extension tobacco specialist. “People like Shirley Phillips and Harry Young had the vision to see past the early problems to the potential of what no-till could be.”
John Young says his father learned about no-till production while on a 1961 farmer field trip to Dixon Springs, Illinois, led by Reeves Davie, Christian County agriculture agent with the UK Cooperative Extension Service, and by reading the book Plowman’s Folly by Edward H. Faulkner.
“He suspected no-till was better for labor, machine efficiency, and soil conservation,” says John Young, who was 11 years old when his father planted the first no-till crop. “Having worked as a farm management specialist at UK and then returning to the farm, he thought that it would be advantageous from the everyday farmer’s standpoint.”
He was right. Shortly after that first harvest, Phillips set up no-till research plots on Young’s farm and became a major advocate for the no-till movement.
“In addition to stopping erosion, no-till agriculture has several benefits, including improved soil quality, increased soil organic matter, it’s easier and faster, and saves producers time, money, labor, and stress,” Murdock says.
No-till research had been going on for some time before Young’s first crop, but was largely unsuccessful due to weed control issues. Young used herbicides 2,4-D and atrazine for weed control, and used a modified mule-drawn, two-row planter that he pulled behind a small tractor to put the first crop in the ground.
When it appeared that Young’s first crop was going to be a success, Davie scheduled a field day for other producers to see Young’s plot.
“It was a busy time for about 10 years,” John Young says. “Typically, we’d have one tour a week or one tour every two weeks during the growing season. The tours would come from all over the United States as well as Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and South Africa.”
Some farmers readily began using no-tillage, but others were hesitant and didn’t come on board until better machinery and weed control methods became available in the 1980s. Today, Murdock says that about 70 percent of the state’s wheat acreage, 50 percent of the corn acreage, and 80 percent of soybean acreage are no-till.
The Youngs continue to no-till as much of their crop acreage as possible and planted their 51st no-till crop this year.
“No-till is about as sustainable as you can get,” John Young says. “The ground is sustained, the food supply is sustained, and the human race is sustained.”