No-till and Soil Quality

Farmers discuss other ways that the soil quality and productivity on their farms have improved. Part 4 of the Farmer to Farmer No-till Video Series.
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Maintaining high crop yields requires that soils are managed well. That means keeping soil erosion to a minimum so the soil stays in the fields where it belongs. It also means managing the soil so it remains healthy; supplying it with ample nutrients, maintaining good soil structure and keeping it biologically active. Many farmers today accomplish these goals by farming without tilling the land; no-till farming.

Water percolation, places that were wet in the spring before I got into my no-till program aren’t wet anymore. I can plant right through those areas, so it’s just the earthworms and with my cover crop program just gives the soil a much better condition.

We could condense the strip size together. We could really farm more efficiently because we made bigger fields, one thing there. A lot of little fields. We saved a lot to time there. It was highly erodible land. And we did have some problems with erosion. The land responded to no till, I believe that’s the biggest thing, it worked. We switched to that and it worked out.

We got an operation here, the grain drill. We have a custom planting operation we were planting about 2000 acres a year, custom planting, and we travel from field to field and we went to farms where it was a first pass probably no-till ever and we went to farms where it would have been third and fourth no-till and I mean the pressure and the aggressiveness we need to set the grain drill at were astronomical and we can always see the difference there.

Over the years farm size has increased. Larger, heavier farm equipment puts more weight on the soil. Wet soil compacts more easily. Avoiding compaction of the soil can be a challenge on many farms when time is short and field operations have to be done before fields can dry out as much as they should.

Well the concerns with hauling manure is that you’re hauling a lot of weight across the field. And I used to use trucks to haul manure and the truck would make tracks, it would compress the soil a good I’d say a good inch and a half, 2 inches where the truck tracks went. Even on relatively dry soil and in wet soil, it was worse than that yet and then to try and get rid of that in a no-till situation was difficult. And you don’t want to take your planter out and try and plant in those truck tracks and achieve good results.

I went to floatation tires on a pull type spreader and floatation duals or else large single tires on the tractors that pull them, and that has helped considerably as far as relieving the soil compaction. We can actually go even on ground that’s too wet, you shouldn’t, but we’ve had times when we’ve gone on ground that’s too wet and with minimal compaction and that has really helped us a lot.

No-till improves the soil structure and it is able to hold up under the weight of equipment better. After several years of no-till, farmers observe that they can get on their fields sooner than they would have before they began no-tilling.

I don’t actually notice it now as much since I’ve been in a continuous no-till program.

My ground is a lot firmer in the spring so I can get on my fields sooner than when I did five years ago.

Some hold the belief that when fields are no-tilled for a long period of time the soil ultimately becomes harder, and in order to maintain yields needs to be worked again with full width tillage tools or perhaps a sub-soiler. With careful management this need not be the case.

Our fertilizer salesman who does our soil testing he’s checked for compaction and we haven’t seen any need to rip yet. If we did we would do it.

I seriously thought about it the first year or two when I was transitioning to no-till because I thought I had a compaction problem. But I never did that and I even see less a need for it now than what I did the first years that I started. Compaction issues seem to take care of themselves after a number of years of no-till.

No-till is not a cure-all and it’s best to start no-tilling in a field that is in good shape to begin with. Otherwise, there may be a loss of production for a few years until the soil does begin to improve.

I think there might be some yield drag the first couple of years, but I think if you prepare ahead of time for what you want to do in the future especially when you’re going from say minimum till to no-till, I think if you plan a year or two in advance and lead up to it I think you can get your ground in decent shape before you go no-till.

For instance, the year before you no-till you wouldn’t want to get in there with heavy manure trucks or get in there with silage wagons or something when the ground’s wet and then expect to go in the next spring or something and no-till. If a situation like that happens it’s better to wait until the following year maybe till you can get everything leveled out good and get a nice seed bed before you get started.

There might be a slight drag now, even but it’s not much because our planting equipment has improved so much that we can basically come in and plant it and get the seed covered that as long as you don’t have compaction issues, something like that, that’s where you might see the yield drag now is that if you don’t eliminate that compaction beforehand and still have you might see a little yield drag, but then there again I go back to the sub soiler. If you have some compacted areas especially for a beginning no-tiller, that’s important to get rid of that compaction. And that will drastically help cut down on that yield drag that’s been associated with no-till, especially the beginning no-till, just get rid of the compaction up front.

No-till has its difficulties, but staying patient and letting the soil environment change pays off.

No-tilling sporadically, so to speak, really isn’t no-tilling. And the reason I say that is because if you no-till a field this year, but don’t no-till it next year and go back and forth like that, you don’t get the advantage of the organic matter building up. You don’t get the advantage of the soil structure becoming more mellow, you don’t get the advantage of the earthworm cavities that go down in the soil because you destroy them when you do the tillage event. So I would encourage anybody that does no-tilling to stay at it, because it does improve your soil structure. You know, it gets better, for me it has gotten better over time. It’s one of those things that I saw it as an advantage when I started and it only got better. There were a few missteps along the way like with the slugs and a few weed problems along the way but you have that in any farming operation. So you know I say give it a try and it will only get better. To me, there’s no reason not to no-till.

No-till farming saves soil, saves time, and saves fuel. And it helps improve the soil and maintain the productivity of our farms.

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