Less fuel. Less fertilizer. Less time. Less weed pressure. More moisture retention. Improved soil structure. What’s not to like? These are just some of the benefits of no-till, yet adoption has been slow and often abandoned according to experts. Understanding the latest definition of no-till and the reasons to stay with it offer potential benefits to your management plan and can affect your bottom line as well.
What is no-till?
"No-till is more than the absence of tillage, yet it doesn't necessarily mean zero tillage either," says Lee Norfleet, soil scientist with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Soil Conservation Modeling Team Leader. “NRCS has developed what we call a Soil Tillage Intensity Rating — STIR. Each type of equipment has a value. If the STIR sum of all implements used for a crop stays below 20, then we consider it to be no-till.”
For example, a no-till planter would have a STIR rating of about 2 1/2 or three. Light disking operations are typically rated at about 18. Some deeper equipment that cut a narrow slit with a shank and run a deep lifting/shattering point or shovel have ratings low enough to meet the no-till classification.
Some tillage is okay but use it only when needed.
When tillage is needed, it’s possible to get by with nominal disturbance. Keep in mind, minimizing surface disturbance is critical.
“The less you till the soil, the less fuel you use, saving both money and time. Avoiding tillage keeps plant residues on the surface, building soil quality up, increasing soil organic matter and reducing erosion loss. Reducing those losses means saving both soil, and the nutrients you’ve applied as well,” Norfleet counsels.
Knowing when your no-till system needs some tillage is critical and is easily accomplished.
“One of the simplest ways to determine if and where tillage is needed is to take a wire flag, push it into the ground and see where the resistance is,” says Norfleet. He adds, “One of the most neglected pieces of equipment on the farm is a shovel. After a season when you have some spots that don’t look quite as good as the rest of the field, dig a hole, look at roots and see if you have a compaction problem.”
When compaction is found, tillage can be used to open up problem areas and it’s important to use minimal STIR-rating equipment. This practice minimizes damage to the soil surface residue — residue that provides many of no-till’s benefits.
Commitment to attain success.
The initial health of the soil when transitioning to no-till is the first issue you are trying to tackle. If the soil is in poor health, meaning soil aggregates and organic matter are depleted, it will take time to build those up, so the grower can reap the benefits of no-till.
“It may take a little prudent tillage, but gradually reducing tillage over time is important,” says Norfleet. “Understand that jumping in with conventional tillage could easily wipe out several years of gains from no-till.”
Cover crops can help.
“Cover crops can be an excellent part of a no-till system,” adds Norfleet. “They keep the soil structure open during winter, a time when many soils are compacted by wetting and drying cycles.”
Norfleet recommends assessing the soil each year. “Many farmers find they can opt for a cover crop every two or three years,” he concluded.