Phipps: Drawbacks of No-Till Farming

October 16, 2017 11:32 AM

Last week we looked at the many real benefits and advantages of no-till farming. This week the other side of the story.  Here are the challenges I have observed, with the most important listed last.

First, as songwriter Roger Miller explained, "Some can, and some can't, and some can". Farmers rapidly found out a new set of management skills and operating practices, many of which discarded cherished production traditions, were harder to adopt than we imagined.

No-till systems are more problematic on heavy, poorly drained soils. They can be slow to warm up and dry out in the spring making planting timeliness a challenge. Heavy residue from high yielding corn for instance can be tough to get seed into.

More than a few long-time no-tillers were unable to find a solution to corn after corn, for instance. Without tillage, if gullies do develop there is nothing to stop them from deepening.

The machinery for no-till farming has gone from the planter, sprayer, 100-horsepower tractor, and combine dream of the 80s to more sophisticated and expensive tools. There is still an economic advantage, just smaller.

On-going challenges to no-till have spawned alternatives, notably, strip till. Whether to call this no-till or not is an open question, but similar work-arounds bend the tillage rules.

Furthermore, no-tilling beans into corn residue and using conventional tillage the following year seems to diminish the advantages of continuous no-till.

Many of the benefits of no-till take considerable time to manifest. Proponents say water infiltration improves after 5-8 years of continuous no-till, for example.

Such long-term paybacks are hard for producers to embrace, especially if yields and profits suffer during the learning phase.

However, what this is I think will prove to be the Achilles heel for no-till - it is 100% chemically dependent. This fact is often overlooked as no-till advocates argue it is more environmentally responsible. It's no coincidence that no-till took off after glyphosate became available.

GM crops only added momentum. But as I talked about a few weeks ago, there is a good chance that weed resistance could neutralize the power of herbicides, and if this occurs, no-till is in trouble. 

I would add this note. It could be that no-till is a superior way of growing crops.

However, the fact it is still practiced by a minority of farmers in the US suggests to me it either is effective on some farms with some farmers, or it really is hard to fool most of the people all of the time.

Back to news



Spell Check

Eagan, MN
11/3/2017 10:06 AM

  Both no till and conventional till are dependent on herbicides nearly 100%. No till can reduce annual weed pressure significantly. Most farmers who try no till one year, say it doesn’t work and go back to tillage never spend the money to set up their planter properly, and by this I mean row cleaners and closing wheels designed for no till (like cast iron), liquid starter in furrow, etc. No till can yield with conventional tillage anywhere If done properly.

Cleghorn, IA
11/7/2017 09:20 AM

  Greetings to all. Those who know me on other chats know me as “Notilltom”. Actually my corn is strip tilled while soybeans are no till. My farming system and strategy is based on no full width tillage. I intend to do everything possible to maintain that mindset which is critical for “Notill” to work, and it does. We finished corn harvest last night on a field that last saw full width tillage in the spring of 1998. The problem I see is that so many equate tillage as the remedy for questions that are driven by complex biological systems. Notill is not farming without tillage, it is a different view and mindset as various challenges (and there will ALWAYS be challenges in working with nature) evolve and emerge. Corn is a challenge. Planters are still seldom focused on notill but rather designed to be modified for notill while the majority of the market is tillage in regards to corn. Hybrids are not designed for notill. Had the founders of Pioneer or Dekalb selected hybrids from high residue plots 90 years ago how much more successful might notill corn be today? Temperature drives biological systems. Tillage is used to modify temperature by drying out the soil and darkening it. I have seen enough “bare soil” but still notill where I had a gap in prior year residue from a planter controller seed change gap and observed increased plant growth to know it’s not tillage, it’s temperature. In nature, for the most part, tillage is not a good thing. Soil is not built with tillage with exception to some rather rare cases. Plant roots and residue recycling builds soil. The economic challenge is a big one because I know of no one who has estimated (there is no way to know for sure) the long term life-cycle costs to land productivity with a tillage based system. So we tend to compare annual yields, costs or at best 5 years. Key point, tillage is a luxury. Moving millions of tons of soil to plant seeds is not necessary.

John Koepke
Oconomowoc, WI
10/16/2017 06:59 PM

  As someone who is a second generation no-tiller (31st season on some land) I'll be kind and take this with several tote bags of salt, especially the part about "being totally chemically dependent." Believe it or not, there are producers attempting to no-till in an organic setting. But as usual, John Phipps is a pessimist. Last week it was "now is a good time to sell out." I haven't taken him seriously since he wrote about telling his son not to come home to the farm about 10 years ago. I'm curious, why does Farm Journal continue to feature someone so stuck in a rut? If it were up to John Phipps' leadership, Farm Journal's readership will be largely extinct in 10-15 years- perhaps sooner. Yes, a minority of producers no-till. A minority will pass on a successful business to their children,too.... by trying new things, being successful, teaching fiscal responsibility, etc. Will you, John Phipps???


Corn College TV Education Series


Get nearly 8 hours of educational video with Farm Journal's top agronomists. Produced in the field and neatly organized by topic, from spring prep to post-harvest. Order now!


Market Data provided by
Brought to you by Beyer