When Agronomist Glover Triplett and Soil Physicist Dave Van Doren launched their no-till corn project in 1963, they could not have dreamed their crop rotation/tillage plots would still be going more than half a century later and be part of a revolution in crop production that today encompasses over 100 million acres in the U.S. and millions more around the world.
Triplett, then a Mississippi farm boy with a newly-earned Michigan State University Ph.D., well remembers the reaction of his late wife, Imogene, when she saw those long-ago Ohio State University no-till plots, covered with cornstalk debris and dead weeds.
Herself the daughter of a Mississippi cotton farmer whose fields were always tabletop clean, she exclaimed: “Glover, this looks terrible! They’re going to fire you.”
Triplett wasn’t fired. From that beginning, he and Van Doren, who was from Illinois, continued honing their work at OSU, and saw the widely-derided “ugly farming” method gain wider and wider acceptance as new chemistries and equipment facilitated the practice and farmers found they could realize environmental, conservation, energy, labor, and other cost-saving benefits while maintaining or improving yields.
Fifty-one years later, their original OSU study is still going — the longest continuously maintained no-till research plots in the world. Several years ago, an endowment was established to perpetuate the plots, which have been named the Triplett-Van Doren No-Tillage Experimental Plots.
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Triplett retired from OSU in 1982, and he and Imogene returned to Mississippi. He began a second career at Mississippi State University, where he had earned undergraduate and master’s degrees.
Today, at age 84, he continues to be actively involved in no-till and forage crops studies as research professor of agronomy for the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station.
Even with its widespread adoption, no-till is still a work in progress, Triplett says, and each year more insight is added to making the system more effective and efficient. In addition to the labor and energy savings, reduction in soil erosion, and enhancement of soil quality, there is an environmental benefit of increased carbon storage.
“The no-till concept certainly wasn’t my idea,” says Triplett, who grew up on a 2,000-acre farm in Noxubee County, Miss.
“Others had already been doing it — at Mississippi State during my grad student days, Dr. Louis Wise, a forage agronomist, was planting wheat, rye, and winter oats directly into pastures in late September/early October for winter grazing.
“But it didn’t catch on and become practical or widespread because a key part of the equation was not totally effective: If any crop management system is going to be successful, one important criteria is that you’ve got to control competition from weeds and other vegetation.
“When I was growing up on our family farm, we controlled weeds with a plow, a double shovel to cultivate, and hoes to get the weeds that escaped tillage. But that just wouldn’t work with no-till.”
Early Mississippi no-till work
After a tour of duty in Korea, Triplett returned to MSU to work on his master’s degree. “I became interested in the work Dr. Wise was doing then — planting cool season forages into summer pasture grasses.
“With MSU engineers, they developed a machine called a grassland drill that would cut a slit in the bermudagrass pasture and deposit seed. When the pasture grass went dormant, the oats, wheat, and rye would germinate to provide cool season grazing. But they didn’t call it no-till; it was called sod seeding. Taylor Machine Works at Louisville, Miss., made a grassland drill, as did John Deere.
“Since the land wasn’t tilled, growth of the no-till crops was a bit later than normal because of the competition from the pasture grasses, but when frost took them out, the crops started growing. We were getting the same amount of production from the no-till crops — it’s just that it was shifted somewhat later.”
In addition to the forage aspects of the system, Triplett says, “We were also concerned about erosion that came with plowing and winter rains.
After earning his master's degree, the Tripletts moved to Michigan State University for his Ph.D.
“Times were lean — I was on the GI Bill —and the weather was different from the South. We looked forward to every payday, (he laughs) because it meant some member of the family could get a new winter coat or boots.”
In 1959, wanting to gain experience with different crops, soils, and weather, he took a position at Ohio State University’s Wooster experiment station. Dave Van Doren, whom he’d known while at Michigan State, later came to OSU, and they began working together.
“If you’re not going to plow, you have to know the processes that are taking place in the soil,” Triplett says, “and Dave’s training as a soils physicist gave him the expertise to evaluate what was happening in no-till.”
About that time, herbicides became available — chiefly 2,4-D and simazine, followed by atrazine — that greatly improved the feasibility of no-till.
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“In the Ohio region, the crop weeds we dealt with were quackgrass, timothy, Kentucky bluegrass, orchardgrass, and smooth bromegrass,” Triplett says. “Growers were using a rotation of two or three years of alfalfa, wheat, and grasses, after which they’d plow and plant corn. Then in March they’d seed alfalfa for forage.
“We could use 2,4-D to kill the alfalfa, then spray atrazine and get the land absolutely clean, after which we’d plant corn. On those soils, which had low clay content and didn’t crack when dry, no-till did as well or better than conventional tillage.
“When we started our work, there were no planters that would plant corn seed in undisturbed sod. Based on my experience at Mississippi State, I obtained some grassland drill openers from John Deere and used them for our early work.
“The planting mechanism used a coulter to open a slit in the soil. This was followed by a knife opener that had two tubes — one for fertilizer, and one to drop the seed. There were ‘wings’ that pulled soil over the fertilizer, so it wouldn’t directly contact the seed, and a press wheel that would squeeze the slit shut to cover the seed and provide seed-soil contact.
‘You’ll have to plow’
“After we’d done some work with it, and demonstrated the feasibility of no-till, we published an article about it. People would come and look at our plots and shake their heads and say, ‘Well, you might do this for three, four, or five years — but sooner or later you’re going to have to plow.’
“At the 40-year anniversary of our study, there was a field day in honor of the program, and I went back to participate. Remembering those who, all those years ago, had said, ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to plow,’ I wondered just how much longer it would be.
“There was some talk in the 1990s of discontinuing the plots, but when word spread in the agricultural community, funds were generated for an endowment to keep them going.”
The plots are now being supervised by Warren Dick, professor in OSU’s School of Environment and Natural Resources.
In the early days of no-till, soil erosion was a concern in much of the U.S., and particularly in the South, where deep gullies were endemic and streams and lakes were clogged with eroded soil.
“The Universal Soil Loss Equation (USLE) is used to estimate soil loss in any given area for a particular practice,” Triplett says. “For the Wooster, Ohio, area, the USLE number is 125 — for Starkville, Miss., it’s 350, almost three times greater due to the amount and intensity of rainfall.
“The major energy factor in dislodging soil particles is the impact of rainfall. If the soil is plowed and already loosened up, intense rainfall and runoff result in a lot of erosion. But if the soil surface is covered with mulch or sod or residue from the previous year’s crops, that cover intercepts the raindrops and dissipates their energy, significantly reducing erosion.
"The reduction in erosion potential with no-till compared to conventional plowing can be as much as 50 times. At Wooster, most of the land was at a 4 percent slope, and plowing resulted in significant movement of the soil. With no-till, there was either no loss or negligible loss."
On the soils at Wooster, Triplett says, “We were getting corn yield increases with no-till, and we wondered why. We found that less runoff meant more water for the crop, and we learned that we had a lot of ‘friends’ working for us — earthworms that thrived on the crop residues. Their burrows made good channels for water infiltration.
“On tilled land, rainfall would cause soil crusting, sealing the surface, and causing runoff. That didn’t happen with no-till. Cultivation of the crop would also destroy part of the corn plant’s root system. With no-till, we were getting more favorable soil conditions that resulted in better root development, and better yields.”
In studies on heavy clay shrink/swell soils south of Toledo, however, they were not getting yield increases. “It was a head-scratcher,” Triplett says. “Dave Van Doren looked at the amount of cover on the soil surface and found there was a correlation between the amount of mulch and corn productivity on the soils at Wooster. If the soil was bare, we got a major yield reduction. We found that a 60 percent mulch cover was the break-even point.
“At that level, or higher, we were getting the benefit of our ‘friends’ — reduced rainfall runoff and earthworms burrowing in the soil. With the optimum mulch levels, we were able to obtain a corn yield increase.” On high clay content soils that crack, we had no yield benefit from mulch cover; when soil dried and cracked, it provided for excellent water intake.”
Mid-South no-till programs
While Triplett and Van Doren were doing no-till work in Ohio, programs were started in the Mid-South. In the 1960s, Tom McCutcheon, superintendent of the Milan, Tenn., Experiment Station, became convinced no-till could help farmers stanch the tremendous soil losses that plagued the region. John Bradley, who succeeded him, expanded and further refined the work, and the annual Milan Field Day attracted farmers from far and wide to see their work — and adopt their systems.
“As more herbicides became available to control bermudagrass, johnsongrass, and other weeds, no-till began taking hold in the Mid-South,” Triplett says. “The advent of glyphosate and dicamba and a host of other herbicides greatly increased the effectiveness of no-till, and glyphosate allowed farmers to no-till soybeans.
“When I came to MSU in 1982, I worked with specialists at the USDA Sedimentation Laboratory at Oxford, Miss., on no-till programs in the Senatobia area. They were concerned about the extensive erosion being experienced on the loess-type soils of that region. We were successful in applying the concept to corn, soybeans, and cotton.
“Two of my graduate students who helped with the work were Ernie Flint, now regional Extension specialist at Kosciusko, Miss., and Malcolm Broome, who became an Extension specialist and after retiring is now executive director of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association.
"Now, I'm cooperating with David Lang, MSU professor of plant and soil sciences, on double-cropping no-till forage soybeans and wheat. We're growing winter wheat for forage, and then Group 8 forage soybeans — Eagle varieties, Big Fellow and Game Keeper — are drilled directly into the wheat stubble. Or you could take the cattle off and harvest the wheat, with 50-60 bushel yields.
“The forage soybeans, scraggly plants that grow 5 feet tall or more, are an excellent livestock feed, with 20 percent protein, and they’re also very good for wildlife food plots.”
After a 60-year career in agronomy research — his honors include being named a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy — Triplett says he is considering retirement in 2015.
But he says, there is still work to be done to further delve into the benefits of no-till, particularly with regard to the environment and carbon sequestration.
Legacies for the future
In addition to his extensive roster of research, the Tripletts are leaving legacies to benefit future generations at Mississippi State University.
Proceeds from the sale of a 1,063 acre family tract in Noxubee County were designated to fund the first fully endowed chair in the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The Dr. Glover B. Triplett Endowed Chair will provide leadership in agronomy education and research, as well as outreach to industry.
His late wife, who had been active in community affairs and the Garden Clubs of Mississippi, established the Imogene C. Triplett Endowed Scholarship in ornamental horticulture and retail floristry management. And the couple established the Dr. Glover B. Triplett Endowed Fund for Crop Research, which provides funds specifically for the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences.
Proceeds from the Triplett Forest, established with an 864-acre gift, are supplementing endowments for two professorships, five scholarships, three funds for excellence, and an assistantship. The gift also associates the Triplett name with the university’s Bulldog Forest, which is only about 15 miles from the Starkville campus and will be maintained as a permanent teaching and research tool.