Illinois farmer and manufacturer team up to devise implement attachments to boost no-till.

Last November, the Conservation Technology Information Center delivered sobering news to soil conservationists nationwide: Use of conservation tillage systems remained flat from 1997 to 1998. More farmers had pulled out their discs and field cultivators in an attempt to battle wet springs, cool ground, stagnant yields and compaction.

But Patrick O'Connor is bucking that trend. For the past 10 years, he has worked past his challenges with no-till - the same problems that caused his neighbors to give it up.

O'Connor consulted Shoup Manufacturing, a local manufacturer of farm replacement parts. Together they came up with five attachments that O'Connor says have made no-till work.

Move the trash. O'Connor farms 2,400 acres in Illinois with his son Mark. They tried no-till farming for the first time in 1989 to combat erosion. Lighter soils were being lost to winds, and heavier grounds were being washed away by surface waters.

"Land sells for $3,000 an acre or more in this area," O'Connor says. "A ton of topsoil is worth a lot of money."

Their first no-till planter was a 16-row 7200 John Deere, which they have since traded for a 16-row, 30-in. 1770 John Deere for corn and a 32-row, 15-in. Kinze 2600 for soybeans.

Their first challenge occurred when they tried to plant no-till corn into soybean stubble. Crop residue was preventing the ground from drying and warming up for planting. During planting, the same residue hairpinned around row units.

To fix the problem, Shoup Manufacturing, owned by Gene Shoup and Cheryl Baber, devised a trash wheel that moves the trash from the seed row so the sun can penetrate. Unlike some trash wheels, it pivots off the same point as the planter's fertilizer arm, independent of the planter gauge wheel, to clear at a uniform depth in uneven ground without widening the furrow, Shoup says. Price: $198/row.

Scrape the mud. During their first wet spring, the farmers met with their second challenge - mud-packed gauge wheels that lifted row units. O'Connor had to clear off the wheels by hand every other round.

"Gene made gauge wheel scrapers, which eliminated the problem 100%," O'Connor says. The scrapers, made of high-carbon steel, are fully adjustable to fit the clearance between the gauge wheel and planter frame.

The complete kit, which includes two gauge wheel arms and scrapers, sells for $99.95. Or you can buy just the scrapers and send the arms to Shoup, who will machine the arms for $52/row, plus the cost of shipping them to the company.

Stop opener sliding. Mud also stuck to the disc openers on their John Deere no-till fertilizer attachment. "It would build up to a point where the disc openers would stop turning and start sliding and pushing dirt," O'Connor explains.

Shoup made a spring-loaded rotary scraper that bolts onto the no-till fertilizer boot mount and clears off the disc with each rotation of the wheel. "Now it always cuts through soil without sliding," O'Connor says. Price: $14.95/row.

Cut corn residue. The fourth challenge happened while planting soybeans into corn stubble. Corn stalks were flung into the planter drive mechanism and collected on the seed metering chains.

O'Connor took a combine sickle section and mounted it next to the chains on each row unit. The rotation of the planter drive unit propels the trash into the serrated knife to cut away the trash.

Shoup made the concept commercially viable by machining the knives to bolt onto existing row unit holes. Patent is pending. Cost: $6.95/row, including bolts, bushings and sickle section.

Think beyond planting. In the fall of 1997, O'Connor started strip-tilling -a hybrid between no-till and ridge-till. In strip-till, ammonia injection knives till and raise the seedbed up about 4 in. while injecting anhydrous ammonia. Seed is planted in the same black strips the following spring because they warm up faster than surrounding soil, and the anhydrous is positioned directly below the root zone.

The first anhydrous ammonia toolbar O'Connor bought for the job was a 12-row, trailer type with mole knives that raised the strips 2 to 3 in. However, ideally the farmers wanted a 16-row toolbar to match the width of their planter and to be in better alignment with the strips at planting. But they could not find one that wide with a marker.

So last fall, Shoup built a 3-pt.-mounted, flat-folding, 16-row toolbar with a folding marker. Shoup says the 3-pt. allows the toolbar to follow the tractor more closely than a trailer type for better alignment.

Another unique feature is that it has two 3-pt. hitches that make it dual-purpose. The first hitch is centered between the eighth and ninth rows for fall use. The second is offset 15 in. so the same toolbar can be used to sidedress. "With conventional toolbars, you would have to move all 16 knives over manually for sidedressing," Shoup says. With this model, you simply remove one shank.

A sliding hitch was designed on the rear of the toolbar. It can be pulled 15 in. to either side or forward and back to ease the hookup of the anhydrous wagon. Once the hitch is latched, a delayed trip mechanism locks it in place.

Pitfalls to profit. O'Connor says these modifications have eliminated his problems with no-till without losing yields. "He didn't say, I'm giving up," Shoup says. "All of the pitfalls have been dealt with."

In return, his cost of production has dropped because he is now farming more land with less labor and equipment. "Right now, corn is only $2/bu. It is important to keep costs down so you can compete worldwide selling grain," O'Connor says.

He says that another benefit he gets with no-till is better soil tilth, with more earthworms, more water-holding capacity and better permeability, than when he tilled.

As proof that this modified system is working, O'Connor's banker is choosing him to rent land in a 50/50 crop share lease arrangement rather than his conventional-till neighbors because he sees a return on investment.

"We took it for granted we had to keep the soil black over the winter to produce a good crop the next year," says Brent Myers, senior vice president of National City Bank in Kankakee.

"But we realized the yields were not suffering. In fact, in some areas they improved. And the farm is in better shape each year."

For more information, contact Shoup Mfg. Co. Inc., Dept. FIN, 145 South West Ave., Kankakee, IL 60901, 815/426-6137.