What is “No Till” Farming?
No till farming is one popular method that farmers are using to better their field’s health and reduce erosion. No-till is just what is sounds like. A true no-till system avoids disturbing the soil with tools like chisel plows, field cultivators, disks, and plows. A plow could be considered the polar opposite of no-till. A plow flips over the top layer of soil incorporating nearly all residue into the soil. No-till relies on natural processes to break down residue from the previous crop.
So looking into this no till system a bit closer what is it actually doing to your fields.
1. Spread your residue during fall harvest.
Plowing isn’t the only way to prepare a field for next spring’s planting. Evenly distribute residue that will be left in the field while harvesting your cash crop to manage against erosion and allow for a uniform breakdown of nutrients and organic matter. Residue can provide a valuable base of cover for your ground over winter.
2. Don’t forget about cover crops.
Farmers traditionally till to break up soil and prepare seedbeds. Over time, tillage can degrade structure and create highly compacted soils that seemingly “need” to be tilled before spring planting.
Plant cool-season cover crops to reduce compaction, build organic matter, and hold your soil in place. Make sure to pick a cover crop species or mix that compliments your cash crop.
If you’re starting with a highly-compacted field, use cover crop species that are meant to break up compaction. Daikon radish is often one great option.
3. Choose equipment with your end-goal in mind.
Simple but critical: Plan before you buy.
Will you plant next year’s cash crop into green cover, terminated cover, or fall residue? Will you drill or broadcast your seeds?
Your operation may change over time, but establishing working goals now will keep you from buying equipment you don’t ultimately want.
Some USDA service centers have no-till drills and other equipment you can rent for minimal fees to get started. All offices are staffed with experts who’d be happy to talk through your specific management goals.
4. Treat no-till adoption as a marathon, not a sprint. Track results along the way.
Building healthy, resilient soil takes time. Some farmers report yield increases after their first year of no-till, but that shouldn’t be your main goal.
You can quantify several economic benefits of switching to no-till: fuel savings, time savings, eventual fertilizer reductions. By tracking these measures along with changes in yield, you’ll gain a truer sense of the impact of no-till across your operation.
Have your soil tested at least once every four years and conduct your own informal assessments regularly. Healthy soils are full of living organisms.
5. Call your local center if you have questions.
Calling and asking questions to learn more about integrating no-till and other conservation practices into your management plan. They are there to help you reach conservation goals that support your farm’s production needs.
Farmers across the country have reduced erosion, held valuable nutrients in-field, saved money on fuel, and increased their soil’s resiliency by reducing tillage.
Of course, there are some drawbacks of this method according to The Farmers Life.
- With no-till a farmer has lost the ability to mechanically control weeds through tillage. Biotechnology has been given some credit for increasing no-till acres because technologies like Roundup Ready have made weed control by herbicide very effective both in performance and cost. Herbicides with residual action can help stem weed growth post-plant. Row crop cultivators are nearly a tool of the past for conventional farmers. Row crop cultivating takes resources such as time, labor, fuel, and causes wear on equipment. We now employ cover crops on some of our no-till acres, and some covers are good at suppressing weeds. Cereal rye is one of those covers.
- There is a risk of carrying over plant diseases when crop residue is not incorporated into the soil after harvest. The residue serves as a host for disease and can infect the following crop. However, farmers can mitigate this situation by rotating crops that are not susceptible to the same diseases.
- It takes time to see the benefits of no-till. One can’t take a farm that has been tilled for 50 years or more and hope to see big gains in yield after one season. Patience is important. Soil needs time to regain structure, and that doesn’t happen overnight.
So, is this the year you’ll try no-till? If so, it is very important to have a strong plan in place will help you leave your plow parked for good.