SIMPSON, Ill. — No-till farming is as commonplace across the
country today as tractors with enclosed cabs. Many may be surprised, however,
that it all started in an out-of-the-way corner of southern Illinois.
The Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in Pope County is
considered the birthplace of no-till farming in the U.S., as research led by
University of Illinois agronomist George McKibben paved the way for the
increasingly common practice.
“Dixon Springs was where no-till farming originated. This is
where it all began,” said John Pike, who heads up the crop sciences research
department at the facility. “They built the first prototype no-till planters
that were used anywhere. Everything that we do here today, with the exception of
some studies that require tillage, is no-till.”
The ag center is the largest of the university’s five
research stations, comprising nearly 5,000 acres, much of that leased from the
National Forest Service. It is the largest experimental station of its kind east
of the Mississippi River, according to the university.
The center also is home to one of the largest beef cattle
research stations in the eastern U.S., with nearly 1,000 head of cattle.
The Shawnee National Forest is more prominent in Pope than
any other county, with about 46 percent of the county’s acreage owned by the
federal government. That has presented some challenges for research at the
center, especially after the government banned the use of pesticides on Forest
“We can put some fertilizers on, but we can’t use any
herbicides, insecticides or fungicide products that we need to do in our
testing,” Pike said. “That has hampered things through the years. Those first
no-till plots that were in play for 28 years had to be abandoned because of
Forest Service regulations. For years, they farmed a lot of the Forest Service
In response, the crop sciences department conducts much of
its research on university-owned land. In addition, some research is done on
private land rented from neighboring farmers.
Much of the cattle herd is located on federal land. The ban
on pesticide use created a problem several years ago when an armyworm
infestation wiped out several pastures, forcing staff to replant grass.
The center also has a bustling horticulture research
component, as well as the Illinois Forest Research Center, which serves as an
educational and outreach vehicle. The center hosts an annual field day in August
and is a summer home for a number of U of I students who work as interns on
In operation since 1934, the center boasts a main building
constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers from stone quarried from the
Its topography and geographical proximity to the
university’s other research stations have provided valuable information for
farmers. The northernmost of the state’s stations is in DeKalb, nearly 400 miles
from Dixon Springs.
“We’ve got everything from the best soils in the country to
some of the more challenged environments. That gives our crop science
researchers a lot broader table to do their work than they might otherwise,”
“The way the weather pattern comes through the southern part
of the state, we get a lot of things that are blown up from the Gulf states that
can be tested here that aren’t as prevalent when you get into central and
“While everything that we see here isn’t necessarily a
problem in the central and northern part of the state every year, those things
can be a problem there. Illinois is a long state north and south. That gives a
lot of diversity.”
The center faced an uncertain future a few years ago as
budget issues threatened funding. But things have turned around.
“A lot of that has to do with support from the ag industry
and farmers around the state,” Pike said. “There has been a lot of support for
the work done here, not just with crop sciences, but with animal science and
some of the natural resource programs.”