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Despite benefits, many farmers say no to no-till

With harvest under their belts, farmers are now planning when to till their land — or whether to do it at all.

Discussion about tillage and its pros and cons is nothing new to farmers. It’s also a topic that has been extensively researched, and an overwhelming majority of University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers and Extension educators endorse no-till.

So why do producers still till their land?

An advantage of no-till practices that readily applies to Nebraska is untilled soil retains more water. Daniel Gillespie, a soil conservation specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said untilled ground will hold more water — about three-quarters of an inch — every rainstorm, which could add up to 2-5 inches of precipitation every year.

“Sometimes that three-quarters an inch is what gets the crop to the next rainfall event,” said Gillespie.

Untilled soil holds more water because of its increased percentage of organic matter and improved soil health. Also, when rain falls on bare ground, organic matter and nutrients become part of the runoff, while soil covered with residue from the last harvest retains those nutrients.

But the disadvantages of no-till can materialize quicker than the benefits.

Robert Klein, a western Nebraska crops specialist at the North Platte Extension office, said one downside to no-till is it increases the risk of plant diseases, especially with a single-crop setup.

“It’s more difficult with continuous corn until you develop earthworms, night crawlers and other critters to help decay the matter (from the previous harvest),” said Klein.

Klein said one way to reduce that risk is switching to a corn-soybean rotation or planting cover crops. Cover crops can also help keep nitrogen and other fertilizers in the soil instead of running down the hillside when it rains.

For producers already stretched thin water-wise, the additional cost of water has to be weighed against the benefits of cover crops.

Gillespie said another issue with cover crops is the short growing time between cash crops. This means farmers may not get the full benefits from cover crops before it’s time to plant cash crops like corn and soybeans. Cereal rye is one of the most common cover crops on a corn-bean rotation for that reason.

While switching to no-till can save the expense of gas and equipment for tilling, Gillespie pointed out that the trade-off is a farmer may have to buy a more expensive planter to get seeds deep enough in the ground.

Despite these challenges, experts still agree no-till is better for the soil in the long-term.

Another option is strip-tilling, when farmers only till the ground that will be planted.

Gillespie believes the plentiful years following the 2005 ethanol mandate slowed down the transition to no-till because farmers were comfortable with the way things were.

“If they can afford to do it, they don’t have to change. But if their bottom line is going up, they’re going to have to make changes,” he said.

Grain prices have gone down, and farmers are seeing their input costs rise. And with erratic weather patterns such as drought, the need to conserve water will become a top priority for farmers.

Gillespie has seen patches of no-till farms across the state. He said they tend to be clustered together, then the pattern switches to mostly till or strip-till in other areas, which suggests there’s one last hurdle to a major adoption of no-till practices.

“To a degree it’s culture,” said Gillespie. “Farmers have always been known for tilling the land. There’s a group that feels that I’m not farming if I’m not tilling.”

(Source – http://columbustelegram.com/news/local/despite-benefits-many-farmers-say-no-to-no-till/article_6fe1f6e4-410e-5c6b-b09d-42a647ddd49b.html)

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