The Benefits of No-till

Wendy Kindig, Resource Conservation Specialist                notillpic1

This article is the first in a series of four focusing on no-till farming. The series will cover the following topics: the benefits of no-till, manure and no-till, preparing to start no-tilling and making no-till work for you. This first article will cover the benefits of no-till.

The benefits of no-till are as varied as the many aspects of farming itself. Conservation-wise, there is less soil erosion. Agriculturally, water infiltration and soil holding capacity increase so plants are less affected by dry spells. Ecologically, soil quality and soil life improve. Economically, fewer trips over the field save fuel and time. So what do those benefits really mean? And how does is effect your farming operation?

Money talks, so we’ll start with the economic benefits. Studies done in Pennsylvania and other places show that a no-till system is more profitable than other kinds of tillage systems. The major difference is with a no-till system, you do a burn down spray to prepare for planting; while with a tillage system, you do your tillage to prepare for planting. All other costs are similar. So, the cost differences are fuel, additional equipment, maintenance of that equipment and the time spent to do the tillage operations versus one extra spray, the fuel and the time it takes. Yet yields are statistically the same in trials. You may refer to Conservation Tillage Series #6 produced by the College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Cooperative Extension for more in depth reading or view it online at http://www.cas.psu.edu/docs/publications/freepubs/FreePubs/pdfs/uc130.pdf So, you can save some money. How else can no-till help you? After a no-till system has been established, your fields will have increased water infiltration and a higher water-holding capacity than with tillage systems. This is due to better soil health and improved soil quality. Soil health is a gauge of the stability of the organisms in the soil ecosystem. Soil quality includes soil health but also takes into account the chemical aspects of the soil, such as pH.

Soil health and soil quality take time to improve. This improvement begins with plant residues. Three to five years are needed for residue to build on the surface. At first the residue just sits there, and nothing seems to be happening. The initial changes are occurring underneath the residue. The soil ecosystem is rebuilding itself. Earthworms, fungi, and bacteria populations increase. Annual tillage destroys the habitat of these organisms, reducing their numbers. The effects are similar to a tornado flattening your house and barn every year.

As the soil ecosystem begins to grow, crop residue levels stabilize. Changes in the soil are occurring. The organisms begin to bond soil particles together creating soil structure. Fine roots from previous crops begin to decay creating small channels. Crop residues dissipate energy from rain drops so surface crusting does not occur. All of these changes allow water to infiltrate faster.

Soil structure develops as the ecosystem continues to grow. Soil structure is the ability of the organisms to bind soil particles together. These particles make clods soft enough for roots to move through, but hard enough to bear a load without easily becoming compacted. As soil structure develops, the soil is able to infiltrate water at a faster rate. Therefore, more water is available for the plants to use during dry spells. A word of caution, fields that have a high clay content may not benefit from the increased infiltration rates of no-till. Clay soils may expand and close small channels that help infiltration increase.

Long term no-till situations reduce soil erosion. Crop residue protects the soil surface from the rain drops’ impact. When a raindrop hits crop residue, the energy is dispersed by the residue. Without the residue, the rain drop hits bare soil and causes soil particles to become suspended in the drop. In addition, higher infiltration rates result in less runoff during storms. When runoff does occur, it carries less soil because the soil organisms bind particles together so soil is not easily picked up by moving water. Cover crops reduce erosion, increase residue and help no-till systems to develop faster. Cover crops should be used in low residue situations such as after corn silage. When the roots of cover crops decay channels are formed, increasing infiltration. The extra organic matter provides a steady supply of food for the soil organisms in the early years of no-till.

And the final benefit of no-till is more flexibility regarding access to fields. As soil structure forms, you will find you can access fields sooner after a rain. Fields will be firm but not hard, and they will not rut as easily. However, take precautions. Even no-till fields can rut and compaction can occur without making ruts.

There are many benefits of no-till. Soil erosion lessens. Water infiltration and soil holding capacity increase so plants are less affected by dry spells. Soil quality and soil life are improved. Fewer trips over the field save fuel and time. Using no-till may help you get your crops planted on time in unusual weather.