Our family owns a small agribusiness that helps farmers. We always try to encourage them to adhere to the highest standards of conservation through different methods of cover crops, crop rotation, IPM, buffer zones, soil testing, and no-till farming, among other things. Although all of these options can improve the bottom line on a farm while bettering the environment, today I’m going to specifically highlight the benefits of no-till farming. Let me also introduce this topic as one that can vary by soil type, crop, region, or rainfall. There is never a “one size fits all” silver bullet for farming, but this is our regional experience growing corn and soybeans in northeast Iowa.
My boyfriend’s brother, Neil Sass, is a soil scientist for our local Natural Resources Conservation Service office in our area, and he and his colleague Helen Leavenworth did a side-by-side comparison to measure soil health. One field had been a continuous no-till management system for 22 years (NT-22). The other field had been no-till for just one year (NT-1). The fields were directly across the road from each other on the Embretson farm with the same 16C2C soil type.
The results are clear: No-till farming has serious advantages. First off, the earthworm count on NT-22 had nearly three times the worms at 71 worms per cubic foot compared with the NT-1 at 24 worms per cubic foot. Secondly, the NT-22 had better soil breathing and respiration. These improved biological properties reflect the amount and quality of soil organic matter, temperature, moisture, and prosperity. Earthworms contribute nutrients, tilth, root development, and improve porosity.
Next we move on to chemical properties. There were some similarities here, but the nitrite levels on the NT-1 management system measured .15 ppm compared to 0 ppm on the NT-22. This shows us that the corn crop is using all of the nitrogen on NT-22; a better utilization of the farmer’s fertilizer inputs.
As far as the physical properties go, the NT-22 management system has improved aggregate stability, organic matter, bulk density, infiltration, and topsoil thickness.
Sounds good, but what’s all that mean? The topsoil is all the fertile stuff. It holds the organic matter, nutrients, etc. The topsoil thickness measured in NT-22 was 7.25 inches compared with 4.5 inches in the NT-1. Organic matter is better as well in the NT-22 at 3.5 percent as compared with 2.25 percent in NT-1. A penetrometer reads as a “stoplight” for roots and bulk density is also a tool used to measure root restriction. Both soils were within a healthy range, but the NT-22 had improvements for this (root health) as well.
What about rainfall? During a heavy rain, heavily tilled soil can erode and runoff, which is a waste for the farmer and the planet. With NT-22, it took three minutes for a 1-inch rainfall to penetrate the plant roots as opposed to a whopping 20+ minutes to hit the roots of the NT-1. Wow! To show just how important it is for rain to soak in, check out this video done by Ray Archuelta, also known as “Ray the Soil Guy,” and his rain simulator demonstration.
This ties in well with aggregate stability which is the “glue” that holds the soil together. The aggregate stability of NT-22 was 83 percent compared with 26 percent in the NT-1. This shows us the longer term no-till management system is going to retain nutrients and really resist those weather elements like water and wind. Erosion isn’t the problem — it’s a symptom of poor soil health, but more and more farmers are improving their farms by switching to these more popular conservation efforts. Here is another video by Ray that explains this theory with the ever popular “slake test.”
So … hey farmers! If no-till farming is an option for you, and you’ve been thinking about doing it, it’s a win-win and you should go for it! Farmers in our area have also reported less downpressure on the planters, which means less fuel is needed. No tillage? Less fuel. What’s that mean? Less time in the field, more time with your family. Also, less fuel needed equals more money in your pocket.
We are currently in the process of creating a no-till mentorship program in our area. A group where farmers can come together and bounce ideas off of one another. If this is something you can get started in your region, consider spreading the word and check out other organizations for ideas (www.ohionotillcouncil.com is one great example).
When you have healthy soil and healthy roots, you have healthy plants. When you have healthy plants you have healthy people. The better a farmer treats the soil, the better it treats them, and as with life in general, you get out what you put in. What could be greater than improved yields, less inputs, less erosion, better utilization of nutrients, etc.? More money in your pocket.
Sometimes the idea of switching your farm over to a completely different management system can feel intimidating, and I get that. Maybe the farmer is worried about compaction. A farmer may have some compaction, but have they measured it? They too often assume they have compaction without actually checking or measuring. Maybe the only compaction is between their ears! (Haha.) When comparing the methods of heavy tillage to no-till, the answers of conservation become quite clear. Keep an open mind and connect with your local NRCS office to get your questions answered. It just may be the solution to an improved bottom line for the farmer, while helping the planet in the process.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is an Iowa-based farmer, public speaker, and writer, who lives and works with her boyfriend on their farm, which consists of row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.