Monday, May 14, 2018

Farmer discussions: No Till vs Till. Which one is better?

There is a discussion going on in the farming community about tilling vs no tilling. Based on that conversation it might be time to rethink the way you're planting your crop.

What is no-till farming?
No till farming is a way of planting fields or beds without the use of a plow or at least drastically reducing the amount of disturbing the land during planting.

This is not a new technology. No-till farming has been around for a long time, and was first documented in Egypt. In the past we used no till practices and contrary to our modern ideals it may not have been because we didn't have tractors. These farmers had a higher crop yield using this method of farming. Here is an article about the history of no till practices.

How do you do it?
Just like any new thing you learn, there is a bit of a learning curve. There are a lot of components and things to think about in the no till method; you may leave fields fallow for a few months, cover crops and planting specific cover crops for the season, and possibly herbicides, and pesticides.

Usually special machinery is used, specifically a no-till drill. It drills a hole for the seeds and then covers it over with soil. There are some alternatives to adding this machinery, broad fork, flail mower, slicer-mower, rotary powered harrow to name a few. If you're interested in learning more contact your local extension office for more specific information.

Heating up the debate
One thing to consider the till method of farming you stir up a large amount of carbon which ends up as greenhouse gas, something that many researchers have been watching for climate change. According to this article by US news the effects of traditional till farming have been heating up the planet. By no means is it the only thing causing that but it is something people are paying attention to.

How does that work? By tilling the ground in the spring organic matter and animal matter, in various forms of decomposition, are released from the ground. When that carbon makes it's way into the atmosphere it is turned to carbon dioxide which acts like a blanket heating up the atmosphere.

So, who isn't tilling?
According to this Washington Post Article no-till farming operations are growing at a rate of 1.5% in the US. While not everyone is switching there are more farmers working this into their farming practices for a number of reasons. In a USDA blog post they talk about how the practice of traditional till method you'll find labor, time, fuel usage, equipment maintenance all take their toll on the farmers pocket.

"No-till has significant economic benefits beyond reduced fuel usage.
A farmer who plows 15 acres per hour, for instance, would save roughly 67 hours of work with each eliminated pass over a 1,000 acre field by adopting no-till. Depending on labor costs and equipment maintenance, that’s an additional several thousand dollars saved each year." USDA 
It is all or nothing?
The good news is you don't have change all at once. If you're interested in using the no till method on your farm you can test out on one field or bed and see how it works before you make the full switch. If you slowly move to the no-till strategy you could see which practices produce more profit yields for your farm. Change is hard and sometimes needs more research and knowledge before put it into production. Taking the slower route might let you see a benefit without the large risk of failing.

To till or not to till, that is the debate. Here's your Pros and Cons:


  • Undisturbed soil reduces erosion, loss of topsoil, moisture, and wind erosion.
  • Also, by not tilling you reduce the organic carbon that is released into the atmosphere.
  • Organic material and crop residue keeps plants watered longer into the season.
  • Biodiversity is kept in the soil
  • Reduced carbon footprint
  • Reduced amount of machinery needed (plows, cultivators, disk harrows) so you don't have to maintain, fix, or purchase. Money saved
  • Reduced amount of skill needed (to operate and maintain the machinery)
  • Soil is less compacted (because you aren't driving heavy machinery over the land multiple times)
  • Money saved on labor and fuel
  • Reduction in the amount of fertilizer used
  • Many programs available to assist farmers in the transition from till to no till
  • More crop yield


  • Root vegetables like potatoes still need to be planted in a tilled bed.
  • Weeds may be persistent (and may need a cover crop and or herbicide)
  • May need to spray for insects or find an alternative method for dealing with them
  • 5-10 year transition back to the original soil eco-system
  • Learning curve: there is a risk of failing while learning 
  • Special machinery-no-till drill, etc
  • Crop residue being left undisturbed instead of grazed
  • Soil may stay cooler longer into the spring. (In a hot summer, areas with droughts, and with rising planetary temperatures this would be a benefit)

Getting started with no-till farming:
There are many resources, information, and guides available to help you if you're interested in the no till approach. I've listed a few but talk to your local agriculture or extension office.

Finding a middle ground
Through history we've had a hand in over-tilling and over farming our soil with devastating consequences. Take the dust bowl in the 1930's. There are also areas in the world that have been deforested, over farmed, and then abandoned. We've learned a lot from our mistakes but mostly go back to our old ways.

Can we find a compromise or middle ground? An alternative to no-till vs till may be in strip-tilling or zone tilling. These practices only disturb a portion of the soil needed to plant the seed. This this a less damaging process which puts both methods into practice. There is even a strip-tilling conference coming to Iowa this year if you're interested in finding out more. 

Here's to farming smarter not harder. 


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