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.