The Father of "No-Till"
Anna Jonesboro Community High School, Anna
In the early 1960s no-till agriculture was not widely supported among farmers and agriculture specialists in the United States. It was intended to be a way of farming without losing a great deal of soil, but few thought that no-till would make a difference in farming. George Elvert McKibben, however, made no-till the accepted farming technique that it is today. Believing in his cause, McKibben said, "I was convinced from the start that it would succeed." After his hard work in research and experimentation, his belief proved to be true. George McKibben was a resident of Glendale, Illinois, and his wife Ruth still lives there.
For thirty-seven years George McKibben was an agronomist for the University of Illinois. Throughout the United States, he developed, as well as promoted, many of the machines and the chemically-controlled weed programs for no-till. These machines and programs are now used all over the nation. As a result of McKibben's work, double cropping became quite popular among farmers. An example of double cropping is planting wheat in the spring and planting soybeans in the same soil, after the wheat has been harvested. The planting of the crops takes place within the same season.
In 1966 McKibben planted plots on which to conduct his experiments at Dixon Springs, Illinois. The plots are now named after George McKibben. Don Holt, the head of the University of Illinois agronomy department, said, "These plots really represent a historic resource," and that McKibben's research on no-till was "probably the greatest single contribution in soil erosion." McKibben's plots are the oldest of their kind not only in Illinois, but also in the world. The main concern of these farmers was to save soil. To do so, McKibben and his team of workers planted corn into fescue sod. The sod had been sprayed with Aatrex, and it took the sod two weeks to die. Planting corn in this dead sod worked. It was known that deeply planted grass prevented soil erosion from occurring, and fescue sod was perfect because the roots of the fescue created a number of channels for the water to travel
ILLINOIS HISTORY/FEBRUARY 2000 21
through. Victor Watson, an agronomy foreman said, "We didn't till, we just planted right in the trash."
Soon after, John Deere manufactured a no-till planter. It was a breakthrough because land that was highly credible now could be used for pasture, as well as for farming. This allowed the hills of southern Illinois to be row cropped productively and profitably without losing topsoil.
The new no-till farming saved not only a great deal of soil, but also time and money. Equipment companies started manufacturing new lines of machinery for this way of farming. John Deere manufactured a no-tiller, but McKibben, Victor Watson, and Donnie Morris made one at Dixon Springs. It was composed of mismatched parts made by different companies.
However, no-till did have its setbacks. The fields became a haven for mice, so the researchers had to think of some sort of pest control. McKibben spent a great deal of his time finding ways to control mice, as well as insects and the diseases that killed his crops.
McKibben was recognized and given many awards during his lifetime. In 1976 he received the Paul A. Funk award. He was recognized by the Illinois Chapter of the Soil Conservation Society of America in 1983. But the best recognition he received was the fact that by 1985 more than one million acres of farmland in Illinois were using no-till as a way of farming. As of 1995, Illinois planted 5.6 million acres of no-till crops, the largest amount in the entire nation.
McKibben died on February 1, 1988, but the contributions that he made to no-till continue to be beneficial to this state as well as to the nation. McKibben said in 1977 at the Thirty-Second Annual Corn and Sorghum Research Conference in Dixon Springs, "We are all aware of the erosion associated with excessive tillage and a lack of conservation practices. Today, we have at hand a tillage technique, zero-tillage for single and double cropping, that can reduce to near zero levels the erosion on many soil types while maintaining yields comparable to conventional tillage. Why not adopt it?"
In an interview with his son Gary, of Anna, Illinois, he said that his father was not the type that paid much attention to the awards that he got, and sometimes he did not even tell his family that he had received them. He did his research and experiments because he liked it. His father had a great love for southern Illinois, and he did not want to see all the land wash away. According to Gary, his father tried these experiments not only on the plots at Dixon Springs, but all over the state so that he could test in all different types of soil. Gary recalled the way that even family members did not believe in no-till, and they teased their father when he first planted the corn in the fescue sod. However, the elder McKibben never let this upset him, and when his idea became a success, he did not rub it in.
McKibben was a man dedicated to what seemed to many an impossible cause. However, McKibben believed in no-till and proved to the state, as well as the nation, that it was a success.—[From Fred M. Brown, "No-till 'father' honored for work," Illinois Agri-News-Friday, Sept. 1983; Janis M. Dimberger, "George Consulted Mother Nature," National Conservation Tillage Digest, Dec./Jan. 1995; James J. Faix, letter to student historian; Ann Schottman Knol, "George McKibben," Southern Illinoisan, June 23, 1985; student historian's interview with Gary McKibben, Oct. 14, 1999; "Farmers Salute 'Mr. Zero-Till'," Prairie-Farmer, Sept. 1983; Gayle Whittenburg, "Time Has Proven Tenets of Father of No- Till," Illinois Agri-News-Friday, Oct. 14, 1983.]
22 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ FEBRUARY 2000