A long-term study into the pros and cons of no-till farming has found that it's easy to get producers to try the practice, but difficult to get them to stick with it.
Nesson Valley Irrigation Research Farm in North Dakota is in the middle of an eight-year research project on cropping systems and tillage practices. The Williston Herald reports that during a recent presentation in Williston, the farm's director asked how many of the gathered producers had tried no-till, then asked how many were still doing it. Many hands went up, but few remained.
The project is led by Bart Stevens, a research agronomist in irrigated cropping systems who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said if farmers stick with no-till methods long enough, they can reap the benefits of fewer inputs, less labor and ultimately, better soil.
Stevens said the main advantage to no-till systems is a long-term effort to protect soil from erosion, as well as the degradation of organic matter that tilling causes. When soil is aerated, microbes take off, munching up all the carbon much faster than they otherwise would. That leads to a loss in soil quality that drags yields down over time.
"Research has shown there is a five to 10-year transition period, during which the soil ecosystem adjusts to no-till management," Stevens said. "During that time, no-till fields may require higher inputs and/or produce lower yields compared to conventional practices."
His study results have shown that yields for corn, soybean, sugar beet and barley have not been substantially reduced by no-till systems, but some inputs such as fertilizer and labor have been lowered.
In the short-term, however, there is a learning curve and there are substantive management issues to sort out, such as an increase in residue-borne diseases.