February 14, 2007 | By: Laura Skillman

For 13 years, Bob Pearce has researched how to make tobacco production work using conservation tillage practices. The University of Kentucky tobacco specialist says while burley farmers have been slow to adopt the practice, technical advances are making it a more attractive option.

Kentucky has a long history of no-till. It has become standard practice into grain crops but not so with tobacco. Part of that is tradition, Pearce said. Producers were raised plowing the fields. In addition, lack of good weed control products and transplanters made it less attractive to producers. However, better weed control and transplanters make this less an issue today. Finally, the uncertainty surrounding tobacco in the 1990s and early 2000s, slowed many producers from making the move until the buyout was completed.

Some advantages of conventional tillage include weed control, reduced compaction and incorporation of organic matter, fertilizer and chemicals into the soil. While it works well, tillage also can increase soil erosion, resulting in higher fuel usage, damaged soil structure and compaction if not done properly, Pearce said.

Advantages with no-till include soil and water conservation, reduced erosion, less fuel usage and the ability to get into fields to perform various tasks when tilled patches are too wet. Another advantage is a cleaner leaf because residue left on the ground in no-till production limits mud and dirt splashing onto it.

No-tilling tobacco does take some getting accustomed to, Pearce said. 

Over the years, Pearce has also been working to modify existing transplanters to make them viable for no-till production. These modifications include adding a coulter that can cut the residue and provide an area where the plant can be placed in the ground. A shank that breaks up soil beneath the surface is also helpful in loosening soil to allow roots to get established. The shank also helps pull the plant into the ground, and modified press wheels help push dirt back around the plant. There are now some no-till planters on the market, and many existing ones can be easily modified. 

Weed control has become less of an issue in no-till thanks to new chemical formulations. But going into the weediest patch of ground on the farm is still not the best management practice when considering no-till tobacco, Pearce said. No-till planting into soybean stubble offers the best option, but corn stubble and wheat stubble can also be effectively used. If using a small grain cover crop, producers need to kill it about a month before planting or when it gets knee-high because it can compete with plants and makes it more difficult for the transplanter to work effectively. With sod, growers may benefit from fall applications to kill the grass.

“The main thing is that there is really only one chance for weed control in no-till, so early control is critical,” Pearce said. “Post-transplant weed control is still the biggest weakness. Mowers and weed eaters are an option, and there are some chemicals that can be used to control grasses. Shield spraying may also be an option, but there is nothing available today to spray over the top that doesn’t also damage tobacco.”

Plant varieties and fertilization are no different for conventional and no-till tobacco production. Research continues in these areas, including use of liquid fertilizer and fertilizer placement.

“No-till tobacco requires a higher level of management, is not as forgiving and is still developing,” Pearce said. “For people interested, I advise them to get as much information as can through Extension, articles and farmers who have done it.”


Bob Pearce, 859-257-5110