Sometimes starting something new is really about leaving something behind. Such is the case with incorporating no-till.
If you’re wondering whether this carbon farming practice is right for your operation, Indigo agronomist Tom Lawler assures that the odds look good. Regardless of where you are farming, or what kind of soil you are farming with, “no-till can fit in almost any operation.”
Lawler explains that each operation’s plan to reduce tillage may vary due to their unique characteristics, but each operation can find success. “There are huge benefits with adopting no-till,” he says. “That could be moisture conservation, promotion of biological activity, as well as reducing labor, equipment, and fuel costs from eliminating tillage.” Along with conserving moisture, reducing tillage can also help your fields shed excess water by improving water infiltration.
The other big savings? Time. Less time working the ground means more time for prepping equipment, marketing grain, checking soil health indicators, coordinating grain pick-up and delivery, scouting fields, networking at trade shows – basically any other executive business task or decision. That time savings won’t come without discipline, of course, Lawler notes. “One of the hardest parts is watching your neighbors go out and work the ground before you get out there and you’re able to plant,” he says. Farmers who incorporate no-till should expect to plant a day to a day-and-a-half later than their tilling counterparts. (That’s valuable additional time to build soil health, but it has to be understood as such.)
Soil temperatures will also change drastically with the introduction of no-till. When you reduce tillage, there is more surface residue, which reflects more sunlight than it absorbs and keeps the soil cooler; better soil structure allows for better drainage, allowing drier soils to warm faster than wet soils. The exposed black soil on a tilled field absorbs more sunlight and generally warms the upper two to four inches of soil more quickly in the spring. While that warmer soil may be good for planting, it doesn’t help during stretches of summer heat.
Lawler suggests incorporating cover crops as you reduce tillage. “Cover crops are something that’s going to make the transition to no-till easier and help bring down the potential yield drag,” he says. Quinn Johnson, a farmer based out of Whitney, Nebraska, brought on cover crops after starting no-till and noticed some big differences in how his soil behaved in the heat. “You walk out in a field that’s got nothing but fallow soil in there and it’s completely bare, it’s very hot when it’s 100, 110 degrees out,” said Johnson. “You can feel the heat radiating off that field. You walk out into a field full of cover crops and it’s almost cool and has a little more humidity to it. It’s almost its own microclimate.”
While keeping your soils cool means you might have to wait for the seedbed to reach ideal germination temperatures, it also means you’re less likely to have the top one to two inches of soil life die when it gets hot. Lawler says that soil life begins to die when soil temperatures reach about 110 degrees; it gets worse as your soil reaches 145 degrees, which is where pasteurization begins. This point is easily reached on sunny days when the air temperature is in the 90s or higher. “By having that armour on the surface,” Lawler says, “you’re helping to mitigate climate extremes by creating a barrier that helps the soil temperature stay lower.”
The increased surface residue, besides keeping soil temperatures cooler, may also build up after several years at alarming rates. While daunting, Lawler says the best answer is to stick with cover crops, which will lower the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio in the soil and help fields continue to function properly. There are planter attachments you can use to manage initial build-up, if build-up happens too quickly; but keep in mind, the faster you build soil health, the faster soil microbes catch up in processing this residue.
Soil temperature and surface residue are just two of many things you might notice as you reduce tillage. Lawler says farmers should prepare for increased bulk density of their soil, which may require adjusting the downforce of their planters to penetrate the harder ground in the spring. (But that’s typically only in the beginning; as your soil adjusts to no-till, you can let up on force.) Increased biological activity is another positive change, which leads many long-term no-tillers to reduce their nitrogen application, for example, with a better backstop of biology helping the soil cycle nutrients. Plus, significant changes can come in the form of erosion reduction.
Lawler says incorporating no-till, at its core, is a simple change. “I’ve seen no till work on many different operations in many different ways,” he says. “Some people have all the gizmos and gadgets, while others have plain Jane, run-of-the-mill technology. And both work.”
If you are getting started, Lawler says there are two ways to go about it: all in, or experimenting with a portion of your acres. He says if you’re going all in, you should sell your tillage equipment to remove the “tilling temptation.” If you take a more experimental approach, he says to make sure you are disciplined in dedicating those acres to no-till – give it at least three to five years to really study a difference.
Lawler says, in any event, farmers who utilize their networks are more likely to be successful when taking on a new practice. “If you know of someone in your area who’s doing it, pick their brain a little bit. Learn from their experience. Try to figure out what worked and what didn’t,” he advises. No matter how simple a change is, it can feel like a complex challenge when you’re unsure what is happening.
Disclaimer. Individual grower experiences may vary. You should independently consider the risks and benefits of the adoption of any agronomic practices on your farmland.