On Farm Trial: Toussaint Farms No Till

Jeff Toussaint of Toussaint Farms in Ridgeway, NY transitioned from conventional tillage to zone-till in 1996 in an effort to reduce overhead and make farming less labor and fuel intensive. Four years ago, he eliminated the zone-till coulter from his operation and made the transition to no-till farming. Currently, Toussaint farms approximately 1,200 acres of corn, soybean, and wheat. 

In general, the early years of Toussaint’s transition to reduced and no-till went smoothly. Crop yields were about the same, and the time and money spent to get those yields was down. Like many no-till and min-till farmers in the Northeast, Toussaint struggled early on to air his soils out in WNY’s wet springtime conditions, with one field in particular putting up a good fight. Toussaint experimented over the years using different coulters, disturbing the soil more or less depending on what that particular field needed at the time, but always erring on the side of less disturbance in an effort to keep his reduced tillage goals on track. Toussaint stresses that every field is different, and some soils — like the soils in his problem field — don’t respond as readily as others to changes in management. You have to be patient and treat different soils according to their capabilities and their starting point. Now, after 21 years without conventional tillage, soil moisture issues are greatly reduced, making planting time and fuel efficient under standard WNY spring conditions.

While zone tillage worked well for their operation, Toussaint felt the time was right to switch to no-till in 2013. Technological advances in no-till made Toussaint feel confident that they “wouldn’t be losing anything” as far as yields and flexibility were concerned, but would be able to save more time and further reduce their overhead costs with a more streamlined operation. Though Toussaint does some tillage using his Turbo Till (vertical tillage) when absolutely necessary, all 1,200 acres are managed as no-till as much as possible. “I don’t think you can be 100% no-till all of the time”, says Toussaint, who sees his vertical tillage system as “a good compromise”. As an example, Toussaint will use his Turbo Till during wet years, particularly in fields that have a lot of residue. This mild disturbance chops and incorporates some of the residue and greatly reduces the likelihood of slug issues, as it eliminates the otherwise ideal habitat of a cool, damp space. Toussaint is much more likely to use the Turbo Till ahead of soybeans, which are more likely to be damaged by slugs, a problem he personally experienced in his fields when he first became no-till. 

 One of Toussaint's fields in an elaborate multi-species cover crop mix in September 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

One of Toussaint's fields in an elaborate multi-species cover crop mix in September 2016. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

In addition to going no-till, Toussaint began working with cover crops about 5 years ago. He is a big proponent of cover crop mixes, his favorite being a 3-way mix of crimson clover, radish, and annual ryegrass. For Toussaint, it was exciting to reincorporate brassicas, something that used to be grown on their farm many years ago, but has not been in their rotation for some time. He’s glad to be “feeding something in the soil that hasn’t been nurtured in years” and diversifying the biological aspects of his soils. In Fall 2016, Toussaint took it a few steps further and began experimenting with more elaborate mixes — using sunflower, annual ryegrass, crimson clover, turnips, radish, wheat, sun hemp, and sorghum all on one field. Toussaint looks forward to seeing how this mixture impacts his soils and his planting in 2017 and plans to continue working with cover crop mixes with the goal of establishing a variety of root systems, trying to accomplish his soil health goals “with nature instead of steel”. 

Since going no-till, Toussaint has noticed a variety of biological improvements in his soil, including increased earthworm activity and greater ease of planting. Over the years, planting has gotten easier and easier, with seeds going into the ground evenly, and machinery moving over their fields smoothly, causing minimal compaction and increasing the amount of acreage they can plant in a day. “Crusting issues have been nil” and standing water following snow melt and rain storms has been greatly reduced. Toussaint’s wheat, which has been completely no-till drilled for the last 3 years, has stood up to recent snow melt and heavy precipitation particularly well, soaking up the extra moisture and storing it for later, a sign of improved soil structure and health. 

Biological improvements have not been the only contributing factor to Toussaint’s happiness with no-till, the financial aspects of no-till and cover cropping have greatly increased Toussaint Farms’ resilience. As stated previously, Toussaint’s yields have stayed more or less the same they were when he was using conventional tillage — with some years proving to be phenomenal, some being a bit of a disappointment and most being completely average. The big difference has been that their decrease in overhead and labor has increased their profit per acre as well as the amount of acreage they can efficiently manage. Toussaint saves a lot on fuel costs, as he runs his machinery over the field significantly less than a conventional till farm. He has also saved a lot on labor because he has less machinery, which means fewer parts to replace and fewer man hours to operate and maintain machinery. His Nitrogen efficiency has also really improved, allowing for only about 0.9 lbs/bushel of added N for his corn crop. While cover crop seed and no-till machiney certainly cost money, the cost is easily recouped when you consider the money saved in maintaining topsoil by protecting your fields from wind and water erosion, as well as the time and fuel saved when your soils are healthy, well structured and easy to work. 

 Planting green into red clover in 2016. Photo provided.

Planting green into red clover in 2016. Photo provided.

 On June 2 2016, some of Toussaint's red clover cover crop was still growing.Photo provided.

On June 2 2016, some of Toussaint's red clover cover crop was still growing.Photo provided.

Despite Toussaint’s long-running success with reduced and no-till, 2016 brought Toussaint’s biggest lesson to date. In previous years, Toussaint’s no-till practices have mitigated the negative impacts of dry weather, a testament to the benefits of improved soils with greater moisture holding capacity, but Toussaint unknowingly created the perfect storm this past growing season when he experimented with planting green into red clover. While Toussaint’s previous experiments with planting green worked well, particularly with crimson clover (an annual with a less aggressive root system than red clover) and ryegrass, this years extreme drought and the harder-to-kill red clover cover crop resulted in devastatingly low corn yields on some of his acreage. While most of Toussaint’s corn yield was only slightly below average, the red clover proved too vigorous to be controlled, and the still-established red clover outcompeted the corn for the little moisture we had, resulting in some very sad looking corn fields. Though those fields were a financial loss and very difficult to look at throughout the 2016 season, Toussaint fully intends to plant green in the future. He has vowed to never use red clover for planting green again, but given his previous successes with planting green into other cover crop species, he does not intend to let one bad year deter him. Toussaint’s top lesson learned? “Experiment small and don’t assume you can manage different species the same.” On the upside, 2016 was one of the best years Toussaint has had for soybeans, which had the benefit of some late summer precipitation that seemed to help them bounce right back after a long, hot, and dry summer. 

 Jeff Toussaint (left) and his son, Matt (center) at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s 2015 Annual Meeting and Soil Health Workshop. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

Jeff Toussaint (left) and his son, Matt (center) at the WNY Soil Health Alliance’s 2015 Annual Meeting and Soil Health Workshop. Photo by Jena Buckwell.

While this past growing season brought a low blow, Toussaint states confidently that he has never regretted the switch to no-till and will never go back to conventional tillage. Despite challenges in 2016, Toussaint reminds himself that there were failures with tillage too, and that while difficult, this year’s experiment proved a valuable learning experience for himself as well as other farmers in the area. For farmers considering the transition to no-till, Toussaint advices that they “read, ask questions, and don’t overcomplicate it”. Like with any farm system, Toussaint stresses that you need to find a way to get seed into the soil evenly for good germination, and if you’re just getting started with the hands-on part of no-till farming, he suggests small scale no-till drilling into soybean stubble, which is easy to work through because of minimal residue. As far as cover crops are concerned, Toussaint urges farmers to fully understand the species they’re working with before putting it in the ground. Different varieties of the same cover crop can have different growth habits and will require different management and different methods to eradicate come spring, so make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into. And don’t give up just because of one bad experience with cover crops — the benefits are there, you just need to understand how to tap into them. Start small and have a plan for eradication before planting. 

To learn more about Toussaint Farms operation, click here.