Earth Innovations: Taking the Leap to No-Till

Let’s dig deep into no-till! In this edition of our Earth Innovations series, we’re covering the potential benefits of eliminating tillage, examining why some growers may still benefit from some tillage and sharing the perspective of a grower who has been successfully running a no-till operation for over 20 years.

Earth Innovations is a new series from Sound Agriculture that covers the up-and-coming techniques growers are deploying to keep their yields high and their land healthy for generations to come. In each blog post, we break down the benefits and challenges of incorporating new practices, using real growers’ experiences and the Sound Agronomy Team’s expertise.

The Basics

No till is the practice of eliminating soil tillage from a field, including as a way of mixing crop residue into the soil at the end of the season. Instead, those residues are left on the surface of the soil to break down slowly, and the next season’s seeds may even be planted into that residue. Some growers combine cover cropping with no-till to further increase organic matter and soil nutrients and to support the microorganisms within the soil. Depending on different farm-specific factors like location or crop mix, growers may transition a few fields or, occasionally, their entire operation to no-till.

Even without cover crops, though, many of the benefits of no-till are closely tied to soil biology; on the most basic level, the mechanical action of tilling can be highly disruptive to the soil microbiome, and that can significantly impact soil life and many of the benefits it provides. Conversely, by supporting a robust soil microbiome, a properly managed no-till system can address several common issues grower’s face.

Benefits of No-Till

• Erosion: Because the soil is rarely (if ever) left exposed, there is very little opportunity for wind or water to wash away topsoil in a no-till system. By sowing cover crops and/​or utilizing crop residues, soil is either covered or hosting a living root system to hold it in place.

• Soil Structure: Maintain porosity and aggregate stability for improved water infiltration

• Water Holding Capacity: Tilled soils often become compacted, resulting in reduced water holding capacity and increased irrigation needs. Soils that are not tilled, on the other hand, can hold water longer, which can reduce a grower’s need to irrigate during long periods between rain.

• Biological Activity: Tillage damages and disrupts the fungi and microorganisms that live in the soil. These organisms not only support good soil structure, but some bacteria and fungi supply crops with in-season access to plant-available nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

• Increased OM: Organic matter plays an important role in soil health and a key component of OM is carbon. Keeping carbon in the soil improves a variety of chemical and physical properties of soil and provides food to soil organisms. Tillage aerates the soil and facilitates the transformation of soil carbon to CO2.

The Argument for Tilling

Despite all the potential benefits of moving to a no-till system, many growers still choose to till their soils. Depending on a grower’s operation and their geographic location, growers may feel the benefits outweigh the costs to the soil biome. Tilling may be advantageous in colder and wetter northern areas, where it can help the soil warm up quicker in the spring and dry out the soil for planting, and spring tillage often aims to improve the planting process. 

Smoothing out and preparing the seedbed with tillage can help the planter run through as smoothly and effectively as possible,” says Jeff Divan, Director of Sales Agronomy at Sound. 

Even some growers who leave a majority of crop residue on their fields at the end of the season may benefit from some tillage. 

Tilling can break up residue, making it smaller and easier to break down and subsequently consumed by microbes in the soil,” says Jeff. Still, there are ways to provide organic matter without tillage, he notes. By not tilling and leaving the roots to decay and die, the carbon that stays in the soil becomes a food source for soil microbes.”

Although excessive tillage can make soil compaction worse, some growers may use tilling to reduce compaction. Deeper tillage, rather than conservation tillage, can remove some compaction that results from a wet year or the traffic of heavy, modern equipment,” Jeff says. This can allow seedlings to break through the surface of the soil and root deeper into the soil profile. 

Finally, Jeff says tilling can be an effective method of weed suppression. With more weeds becoming resistant to herbicides, eliminating them with tillage passes in the spring can help growers deal with weed pressure,” he explains. By breaking up weeds and their roots, tilling disrupts the weeds’ growth cycle, especially if done before they go to seed.

We’re growing a lot more crop with fewer inputs. We found that even though we don’t need as much fertilizer as we used to, we’re getting crops that are just as good or better. The soil can hold more water and our cover crops keep the ground covered, which reduces evaporation, so we don’t need as much irrigation.

Ryan Speer and his family at their family farm

A Grower’s Perspective

We started doing no-till twenty years ago to try and stop wind and water erosion,” says Ryan Speer. Ryan farms in Kansas, popularly known as one of the country’s windiest states. As for rain, Ryan says sometimes they get a lot and sometimes none at all, but those large rain events are a significant risk factor for water erosion.

Ryan started with only a few no-till fields, but he quickly expanded the practice. Two years later, roughly 50% of the operation was no-till, and by year three they were at 100%.

Controlling erosion was our goal, but we started seeing effects that we hadn’t planned on, but were really pleased to see,” he says. One major benefit is that no-till has helped them respond to changing weather patterns. 

Our rains seem to drop a higher quantity of water when they do arrive, but when we compare with how frequent they were historically, they are also farther apart now,” says Ryan. When we get those rains, we need our soil to have good water holding capacity so that we can capture that rainfall instead of having it running off our fields into the ditches and the rivers, taking soil with it.”

Today, Ryan says their soils’ water holding capacity has at least quadrupled; they can now hold as much as 8 inches of rainfall per hour, and that translates into real money for the farm — their irrigation costs have dropped by 40%, he says. 

Ryan shows off some of the healthy soil at his farm

Increased water holding capacity was just one of the unintended benefits they started seeing after switching to no-till. They’ve found they can use less fertilizer and fewer chemicals on their fields, saving on input costs, and he says their yields have also increased. 

We’re growing a lot more crop with fewer inputs,” he says. We found that even though we don’t need as much fertilizer as we used to, we’re getting crops that are just as good or better. The soil can hold more water and our cover crops keep the ground covered, which reduces evaporation, so we don’t need as much irrigation. These effects all snowballed on top of each other to give us some really fantastic results.”

Some growers may be surprised that they experienced a yield boost, since Ryan says it’s common to hear that switching to no-till has a yield drag for the first two or three years. It’s hard to know what impact location had on their experience, Ryan says, but they have developed a strategy to reduce the risk of yield drag when switching a new field to no-till. 

When we take over a piece of ground that’s been in full tillage, we automatically put cover crops into it to get the soil biology kick-started right away, and we usually do not experience the yield drag,” he says. 

Transition Challenges

Still, Ryan says they had challenges in the early years, particularly when it came to dealing with crop residue. Tillage breaks up and mixes the residues into the soil where the grower doesn’t have to worry about it, but in a no-till system, that residue has to be planted through come spring. 

When you first make the change to no-till, the soil biology is often less active and it takes a couple of years to really pick up,” says Ryan. As your soil starts to change, soil organisms eat the residue and those issues take care of themselves, but at first it can be a challenge.” Today though, Ryan says growers have access to planter equipment and attachments that can make the transition period a lot smoother than it was for his farm 20 years ago. 

Ultimately, the biggest barrier is mindset, he says.“It’s hard to fight the instinct to keep doing things the way you’ve always done it and how you know how to do it,” he says. 

Taking the Jump

For growers considering transitioning some of their acres to no- or low-till, organizations like NRCS EQIP, the Soil Health Institute and No-Till on the Plains can offer growers farm-specific guidance, financial incentives, and education. Ryan also recommends reaching out to other growers in your region who have experience with no-till. 

If there’s someone already doing no-till, reach out to them and get advice — there’s no reason to face stumbling blocks if someone else has found a way to avoid them. Use the resources available to you to help you get started and avoid any costly mistakes.” 

Every grower’s operation is unique and choosing which practices to implement to improve soil health, water retention, and on-farm resilience will look different on each farm, but Ryan says the goals are the same. For Ryan and his farm, the challenges of no-till have been worth it. 

It does take a higher level of management than tillage. When you’re really focusing on your soil biology and trying to work with the soil to keep it healthy, that’s a more complex system. But to me, it’s also more fun.”

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