Is It Time to Reconsider No-Till?

The list of pros and cons of no-till is extensive.

Published on: Jun 18, 2013

By Ted Bay

A recent southwestern Wisconsin meeting on no-till, billed as a workshop for farmers interested in trying no-till crop production, had a modestly impressive turn-out of 50 farmers. When asked if any in the audience were practicing no-till, nearly all hands went up. It's both a disappointment and encouragement.  It seems difficult to attract new practitioners to no-till while those already following no-till are "sold" on the practice and are looking for information to advance their no-till management skills.

The list of pros and cons to consider in no-till is extensive.  In favor are major cost factors of reduced labor, usually in the 30% to 50% range, reduced fuel cost, also 30% to 50%, as well as major production factors of reduced soil erosion, reported as high as 90%, and moisture retention. Field measurements have shown that a tillage pass in the spring increases soil water evaporation by ½- inch. These are followed by additional benefits of reduced equipment needs, reduced sediment pollution, reduced fertilizer pollution, wildlife benefits, and reduced air pollution. The benefit of the major factors can be magnified in times of drought when moisture management reins and in wet years when every planting window can be taken advantage of.  Special considerations of no-till include greater management requirements, the special equipment of no-till, changes in disease, insect, and weed pressures, and field conditions that require careful attention in no-till, wet soils and cooler soil temperatures.

Many no-tillers feel they have learned how to match the yields of conventional production practices and are now working on yield enhancement and the cost saving benefits of no-till to increase profitability.
Many no-tillers feel they have learned how to match the yields of conventional production practices and are now working on yield enhancement and the cost saving benefits of no-till to increase profitability.

Limiting soil erosion
Strong commodity prices have attracted more acres out of hay production as well as the conversion of marginal land into row crop production prompting concern for increased soil erosion.  Soil loss is a major worldwide concern in crop production and is increasingly addressed in agriculture and public news stories.  The finite quantity of productive agricultural land is seen as increasingly valuable in addressing future food production requirements.  Articles reference soil as key to a societies' survival, and consequently makes soil loss a major agricultural issue.  Few farmers would give away acres of land but stories abound of the rail car loads of the very best top soil that are lost after a spring of major rain events.

No-till production, particularly factors that influence yield in no-till, affects soil issues that are of interest to farmers worldwide.  These include factors that have been under the broader umbrella of soil health such as soil tilth and porosity, and a major factor in soil fertility and moisture management, soil organic matter.  Front and center with the drought of 2012 was the on-going concern of climate change.  The moisture conserving benefits of high organic matter, benefited by no-till practices, was often cited as a component in achieving unexpected yield levels at the end of the 2012 growing season.  The cooler soil temperatures under the residue of no-till may have become beneficial during the heat of July.

Many no-tillers feel they have learned how to match the yields of conventional production practices and are now working on yield enhancement and the cost saving benefits of no-till to increase profitability.  Advancements in precision ag help manage soil fertility and guide planter tracking to aid residue management and fine tune seed placement.  Many producers see no-till farming as a way to address environmental concerns and advance production practices that have long term implications for profitability and meeting world food production needs.

Bay is the Grant County Extension crops and farm management agent.