The 1980s weren’t just about unforgettable music and timeless hairdos. Serious economic problems on American farms destroyed equity and forced innovation. One idea promised to help farmers lower costs, minimize labor and take a leap forward in soil stewardship: no-till farming.
It has a much longer history, but during the trials of the ‘80s, no-till burst into the ag media spotlight. The introduction of new herbicides might have been the key, but shedding burdensome equipment and labor costs looked like an answer to out-of-balance sheets.
With just a John Deere 4020, a planter, a sprayer and a combine, we could accomplish what formerly required much more capital. Even better, we could promote soil health and erosion control at the same time. Farmers jumped in or studiously watched neighbors who did.
Failure To Launch. So publicized was this trend, I remember thinking no-till would eventually be How We Do Things. Yet the latest (admittedly vague) numbers from USDA show only about one-fifth of cropland is continuously no-tilled, which I contend is truly no-till. More acres are no-tilled occasionally, but that is like saying you are married except on weekends.
I am not deriding no-till or its practitioners. Some of the best farmers I know are continuous no-till. I just cannot figure out why, with all the benefits, it hasn’t become the dominant production practice. Here are some possible answers.
1. No-till requires too much effort. No-till calls for more management of heavy residue. Learning the judgment calls on when is too wet, for example, can be a painful process. No-till seems to constantly be in turmoil with new solutions to problems such as planter slot closing. Conflicting research and dubious explanatory narratives have split the no-till community into a number of different systems.
2. The practice carries too much baggage. Originally, people of courage and vision adopted no-till. To many, though, the shift echoed agrarian simplification crusades. Conversion to no-till was routinely and unfairly seen as a quasi-mystical conversion to an alternative belief system.
3. Farmers have a chemical dependence. No-till could have died aborning without glyphosate. With weed resistance, total dependence on herbicides might become riskier and more expensive relative to tillage.
4. Climate change has created uncertainty. Although no-till proved a great tool for dry conditions, the increased frequency and size of rain events because of warmer air temperatures often make spring field operation schedules unpredictable.
5. Corn-after-corn presents many challenges. This is a true Achilles heel for no-till, despite extraordinary effort by practitioners. Some can make it work, but many 20-year veterans broke down and bought Big Iron to capitalize on higher corn prices.
6. Bottom-line results are lacking thus far. The data allow most farmers to decide whether no-till will make more money. Although no-till soil benefits might be real, they are not easily converted to dollars per acre. Policies that assess externalities such as nutrient runoff to originators, such as “polluter pays” rules, could radically alter the numbers, though.
Reality Check. The stalled conversion to no-till would be little more than a curiosity were it not for the fact agriculture frequently trots out no-till as our answer to environmental faultfinders.
The next time you read how farmers are being environmentally responsible by utilizing no-till, insert “20% of” ahead of “farmers” and see how that claim is weakened. We remain an industry of “lotsa-till,” and we deceive ourselves even more than outsiders if we think one acre can solve problems created by five.