Less field time, virtually zero erosion, improved soil quality and as good or better yields are four solid reasons for considering no-till (including strip till and ridge till) farming.
But the quick and easy calculation is fuel savings — up to 4 gallons an acre less diesel fuel with no-till or ridge till, according to Randall Reeder, Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer.
Speaking at recent Conservation Tillage Conference hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension, Reeder said no-till typically uses 2 gallons to 4 gallons per acre less diesel fuel compared with conventional tillage. At current diesel prices (about $2.25/gallon on the farm) you’re looking at upwards of $10 per acre less expense just in fuel.
“There’s a few other benefits for going no-till but nothing matches those fuel savings,” Reeder said. Plus for every dollar saved in diesel fuel, there is probably another $5 to $10/acre additional savings in labor, machinery investment and related costs.
His tips on getting better fuel economy:
- Timely engine and power train maintenance
- Tires (improving traction and flotation; reducing rolling resistance)
- Use auto-steering and controlled traffic
- Strip-till or subsoil no deeper than necessary
- Replace worn, dull components.
Rank factors for no-till
Natural factors play a major role in the adoption of no-till. Three that rank high are rainfall, spring temperatures and field slope. In much of the Corn Belt wet and cold soils in spring can hinder planting. However in drier climates, no-till can conserve enough moisture that a year of fallow is no longer necessary between crops.
Estimated tillage costs per acre according to Iowa State University data are: (includes fuel, oil, repairs, depreciation, interest, insurance, housing)
- Moldboard plow: $16.60
- Subsoiling (V-ripper): $13.50
- Offset disk: $8
- Chisel disk: $7.70
- Tandem disk: $5.60
- Field cultivator: $4.20
No-tillage is defined as planting a crop on unprepared soil by opening the soil only wide enough and deep enough to obtain proper seed coverage.
What happens to soil tilth? It gets better and here’s why.
- Increases organic matter
- More soil enzyme activity
- More microbial biomass
- Improved soil porosity and aggregation and
- No-till increases water-stable aggregates.
Not necessarily higher yields
Despite the benefits, no-till doesn’t guarantee higher yields. Iowa State studies in fact show inconsistent results often showing higher yields in well-drained soils but lower yields in poorly drained soils.
Palle Pedersen, ISU soybean specialist, also spoke at the tillage conference, and said that frequently the principals of pathology and agronomy are at odds in debates on no-till versus conventional tillage.
There is greater pathogen survival in soil surface residue with no-till. He cited the following: Seedling disease are up in no-till; soybean cyst nematode is down in no-till; brown stem rot is up in no-till; white mold is down in no-till; and sudden death syndrome is up in no-till.
Pedersen said farmers continue to make no-till work, and the ranks are growing each year. He also pointed out disadvantages of no-till, especially challenging to a newcomer.
- Stand establishment
- Planter expenses
- Increased input costs may outweigh cost of tillage
- Wet springs
Does soybean variety make a difference in tillage choice? Apparently not. Pedersen reported on 12 different soybean varieties used at six locations across Iowa. His assessment of the data?
“Overall, the highest yielding in convention tillage was also the highest yielding in no-till.”
He also commented on a three-year inoculant study at these same six locations. His conclusions:
- Inoculants did not increase yield
- Tillage system was not a factor
- No increase in yield at any location.
Inoculant Yield (bu./acre)
Cell-Tech 2000: 67.2
Narrow rows however yield better for soybeans than do wider rows, even in no-till. At the same six Iowa locations involving 17 site-years, his data shows no-till beans in 15-inch rows yielded 3.8 bu./acre greater than 30-inch rows. Even in a no-till system a final stand of 100,000 plants per acre is enough to maximize economic return.
No-till problems, solutions
Reeder listed most common problems (and solutions) associated with continuous no-till.
• Too much residue
Try a light pass with a tool that breaks/cuts residue into shorter pieces and mixes into soil to speed decay. Could corn stalks, wheat, be cut higher so there is less loose residue to drift or float? At planting, could row cleaners, or a different style planter solve the issue?
• Soil compaction
Running heavy machinery with no opportunity to remove compaction with tillage can create a problem. But Ohio research shows that no-tilled fields resist compaction better than deep-tilled soil.
A problem facing most farmers this spring. Reeder suggested doing just enough shallow tillage to smooth the ruts for planting. Then if you see reduced yields from compacted spots next fall, consider deep tillage after harvest in those areas.
• Controlled traffic
This is the ideal method of avoiding compaction problems. Having all traffic confined to permanent lanes means up to 80 percent of your soil is untouched by machinery. For 30-inch rows, the tracks repeated are always between the rows. For narrower rows, one to four rows might be skipped for primary tracks. With an auto guidance system controlled traffic can be established for any tillage system.
Reeder suggests this as an ideal transition into continuous no-till. It also better fits where residue is too thick for no-till, or where warmer soils are needed quicker in spring.
In Minnesota, Reeder indicated strip-till or ridge-till may be a better choice.
“But even with no-till with some ‘tweaks’ for local conditions and aided by auto-steering, controlled traffic and cover crops as needed you’ve set the stage for improved soil quality, reduced erosion, managed compaction, fuel savings and increased net income. ... This system lays the groundwork for long-term improvements in agriculture and increased food production worldwide.”