Before planting even begins, most farmers will head to their fields to prepare the soil for year’s crop. But while plowing or turning over the soil through some type of tillage has been traditionally used, farmers are increasingly adopting what is called “no-till.” Although the numbers are getting a little old now, the USDA estimated that 35% of acres were considered no-till in 2009.
So, what is no-till and why are farmers adopting it over traditional tillage options?
What Is No-Till?
You can think of no-till as the direct opposite of plowing or cultivating the soil. Instead of turning the soil over with some type of implement, such as a plow, we simply leave it alone. That means the residue from last year’s crop stays on top of the field and is allowed to naturally break down and go back into the soil. When we plant, we literally plant right into the residue and into the soil as it is.
If you look closely at the photo below, you can see how we have actually already planted into this field. We have not used any tillage on the field and the crop residue is still present.
What are the Benefits?
Believe it or not, utilizing a no-till system actually has quite a bit of benefits for the farmer, the crop, and the environment.
- Healthier Soil. Because the soil is not being agitated through regular tillage practices, all of the living things in the soil are allowed to flourish undisturbed. Organic matter found in the soil is allowed to flourish, instead of being disrupted.
- Reduced Soil Erosion. When a field is tilled, or plowed, in some way, it increases the chances that the soil is going to erode. It can literally either blow away, or be washed away by rain. No-till cuts down on the chances of this happening by keeping the root systems of the prior crops in the fields. This holds the soil together and reduces the likelihood that it will be eroded away.
- Reduced Runoff. Similar to avoiding erosion, no-till practices can also reduce the amount of soil that is taken from the fields and deposited in our waterways.
- Carbon Sequestration. For those concerned about climate change, this one is a big deal. By not tilling the soil, we actually keep a lot of carbon locked into the soil. If it is in the soil, then it isn’t in the atmosphere. Of course, running tillage equipment uses fuel, which also increases CO2 emissions.
- Reduced Labor and Machinery Wear. Every single time farmers have to drive across a field, it costs us time, money, and labor. It also put additional wear and tear on our equipment. When we adopt no-till practices, we completely eliminate a trip across the field, thus saving on time, money, and labor.
What does it have to do with GMOs?
Technically, nothing. But the availability of herbicide-resistant crops had made is far easier for farmers to adopt a no-till system. Weeds are a big deal because they can suck important resources away from a small, newly planted crop. We don’t want our new soybean plant that has just popped through the soil to compete with a weed for sunlight, water, or other resources. Competition with weeds can suppress the plant and compromise yields later. That means we have to control weeds to give that little plant its best possible chance. Traditionally, tilling has been one way we have been able to control weeds. However, herbicide-resistant crops allow us to control weeds by simply spraying the field either right before we plant, or shortly after we plant. It allows us to clear the field of weeds without ever tilling any of it. We then get the benefits of no-till, and a clean field for our crops.
On Our Farm
Over the years, we have been adopting a no-till production system. While there are still reasons we opt for conventional tillage on some acres, we have taken advantage of no-till when we can, particularly for the benefits highlighted above. In reality, the use of genetically modified crops have allowed us to do this on a wider scale, because we are still able to control for weeds efficiently. Although we may never be able to adopt no-till on 100 percent of our acres (for various reasons), we do use it when possible to increase soil health and cut down on our own costs.
Pete Sinanian says
Amanda, good article. It would be helpful to understand the reasons you must till certain fields and can use no toll on others. Also how do you direct seed a large scale no till field? Any data on germiniation rates on no till fields? Thanks
Pete, I plan on doing a follow-up article that will discuss why we till certain fields. I’ll try to post a link here when published. 🙂
Keith Duhaime says
A couple of other benefits you kind of touched on but could be more explicit about.
1. Maintenance of soil structure, leading to better drainage.
2. No or reduced plough pan, allowing for better drainage, deeper root penetration and potentially better crop resilience in drought situations.
3. Reduced soil erosion also means less transfer of chemicals (herbicides, insecticides, etc.) into off field and into watercourses and other places we do not want them.
Carole Waller says
Do you alternate the crops in these fields, or plant the same again?
Most of our fields are alternated between corn and soybeans.