Say Yes to No-Till Farming

What do you think is the most crucial component in any farming operation? Although equipment, seed, fertilizer, and other farming tools might come to mind, these can all be interchanged or replaced. The soil is the most crucial component. The one constant in any farming operation is the land being farmed. Most farmers strive to do their best to be good stewards of the land because their livelihood depends on the productivity of the soil. One practice that will improve soil productivity and health is no-till farming.

No-till farming is a method of growing crops from year to year with minimal soil disturbance. Crop residue is left on the field after harvest, where it acts as a mulch to protect the soil during the winter. No-till farming helps to control soil erosion, keeping the valuable topsoil on the crop field. The following year’s crop is planted with a special planter that cuts a slot through the residue just wide enough to place the seeds in the soil.

Conserving soil is not the only benefit of no-till. Leaving crop residue on the field helps increase water infiltration and limit runoff from the field. This helps to reduce the amount of sediment, fertilizer, and pesticides that might be transported to nearby surface water, therefore reducing pollution. Additionally, more water remains available in the soil to be utilized by the growing crop. No-till reduces soil compaction along with labor, fuel, and machinery costs needed to produce a crop. Soil managed through no-till has higher biological activity and more organic matter than soil that’s conventionally tilled.

Despite all the well-documented advantages of no-till, it has a slow adoption rate. Based off a Natural Resources Conservation Service study published in 2021, no-till has only been adopted across 21% of all cultivated cropland acres in the United States. So why should you say yes to no-till?

Converting to no-till could save you thousands of dollars annually. On average, farmers that use conventional tillage use just over 6 gallons of diesel per acre, while no-till requires less than 2 gallons per acre. Across the country, this difference means nearly 282 million gallons of diesel fuel is saved annually by farmers who practice no-till over conventional tillage. A producer who farms 500 acres and switches to no-till could save 2000 gallons of diesel fuel. Assuming a diesel fuel cost of $4.00 per gallon, that producer could save more than $8,000 in fuel cost each year. Besides reduced fuel costs, no-till will also save you time. For example, a producer who tills 15 acres per hour could save approximately 33 hours of work with each eliminated pass over a 500-acre field by adopting no-till.

Fields managed with no-till will have a higher water holding capacity, better soil retention, and increased organic matter than conventionally tilled fields. Over time these benefits can lead to lower fertilizer and herbicide inputs, which provides additional savings, especially with the high costs of these materials we are experiencing.

Adding a new practice into your operation can be challenging, but we are here to help. We understand that farmers need to care for their bottom line, while also caring for their land. The Shiawassee Conservation District has financial incentives to try no-till farming for agricultural producers in the Looking Glass River Watershed. This program will be open until September 2024 and is a great opportunity to test out a new practice. Remember, it can take three to five years to see the benefits of no-till in your operation. You do not have to farm in the Looking Glass Watershed to receive assistance to transition to no-till. There are Farm Bill programs available that provide both technical and financial assistance. Call the Shiawassee Conservation District for more information on no-till and other conservation practices and programs.

This information is part of a larger project funded by EGLE under the NPS Control Fund and Section 319 of the federal CWA.

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