September 18, 2001 | By: Laura Skillman

For Charlie Tarter, planting his tobacco using no-till methods is the right choice.

Tarter, an Edmonson County farmer, has been growing some of his tobacco using the no-till method for five years.

"As long as I raise tobacco, I intend on doing it," he said.

Tarter said his reasons for using no-till are that it reduces erosion, provides good weed control, saves time and he doesn't have as much worry about rain at cutting time.

The main reason to consider no-till tobacco is to reduce soil erosion, said Bob Pearce, a tobacco specialist with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.

"A lot of our tobacco grows in areas where there's a high potential for soil erosion," Pearce said. "And the kinds of rains we've had this year, where it came down in buckets, is a good reason why we need it."

Pearce said he's been in fields where the topsoil as been eroded leaving the subsoil exposed. No tillage allows farmers to use land on a little bit more of a slope providing them with improved field rotation options. Rotation helps reduce weed and disease pressures.

Other advantages in using no-till are that it preserves moisture and reduces the amount of time it takes in field preparation. Some fuel savings can also be realized because of reduced trips across the field and sprayers use less fuel than tilling equipment, he said.

The ground surface tends to be firmer allowing farmers to spray, cut or top tobacco when conventional patches would be too muddy. And Pearce said he had a farmer tell him it is easier to walk on.

The potential also is there for a cleaner leaf because not as much mud would be splashed up on the leaves if the plants have been cut and it rains.

Muhlenberg County farmer L.E. Pearson grew his first patch of no-till tobacco this year. While he'll have to wait until the crop cures to see the final results, he's been happy with it so far and plans to grow more next year.

In Muhlenberg County, the UK Cooperative Extension Service office received a $4,000 grant from United States Tobacco Company to purchase a no-till planter. Five farmers also paid rent in advance in order to get the planter bought, said Darrell Simpson, Muhlenberg County Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources.

Pearson used the planter to set one of his burley patches. Erosion was the primary reason he decided to try the method. About half of his tobacco crop is on somewhat erodible land, he said.

"Some of that land washes pretty bad when it rains hard," he said.

Since the late 1970s, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has been researching and experimenting with ways to make no-till tobacco feasible for the state's farmers.

Much of the early work focused on establishment of the crop and weed control. Today, those factors have been fairly well resolved by the development of a transplanter that has consistently resulted in acceptable stands, Pearce said.

With the labeling of the chemical Spartan for preplant use in tobacco, weed control has become consistent. Before that, site selection had to be done very carefully, he said.

Now, the University is starting to work on issues such as managing a cover crop and fertilizer management, Pearce said.

Research is showing that if the cover crop, such as winter wheat, is allowed to establish too much growth it takes away moisture and some nutrients resulting in stunted early growth of tobacco, he said. Researchers are looking at what is the best amount of residue to have left on the ground, and also at various types of crops as cover options.

No-till tobacco production is not for everyone, Pearce said. One tends to find that farmers interested in no-till tobacco production are involved in no-till grain production and have a feel for it and how to manage it.

He said he can envision 20 to 30 percent of the state's tobacco crop ultimately being grown using no-till production.

Pearce said no-till tobacco has the same yield potential as conventional tobacco production. But he warns farmers that no-till production takes a better management system and it is not as forgiving as conventional production.


Bob Pearce, (859) 257-5110; Darrell Simpson, (270) 338-3124