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How to Run a No-Till Farm

Don’t be mistaken into believing that no-till farming means there’s no effort involved. If you want to reap the benefits of no-till farming while maintaining a profitable farm, you will need to take considerable care of your farm management.

Alternative farming methods could very well be the solution to some of the most widespread agriculture problems of our time; poor soils, changing climates and the need for efficient farming to feed a surging population. Farmers who’ve chosen to go down no-till routes are generally looking for effective ways to farm without dealing with soil erosion, dry soils and disturbed microorganism systems that would otherwise be maintaining healthy soil. Great, you may be thinking, I’ll start incorporating no-tillage into my farm management… but it would be a mistake to just jump straight in. First, you need to understand how normal farming practices, i.e. sowing and harvesting, can continue with soil that hasn’t been tilled.

You’ll want to do some further research (we have plenty of useful articles already on our website!) into topics like cover crops, crop rotation and irrigation methods. Learning about your soil type and how to effectively manage farm practices over the years will also be necessary, if you’re not already an agricultural expert.

Once you’ve truly considered no-till farming and are sure it’s the way forward for your farm, we applaud you! Below we have 4 excellent tips and tools you might want to invest in before you begin no-till for the first season. Oh, and a quick note about cover crops too; they’re vital for successfully running a no-till farm and producing healthy crop that can compete with the pro-tilling farms around.

A quick note about cover crops…

Cover crops are essential for no-till farming, especially when your crops are completely removed from the ground when harvested, leaving no roots or stalk to mulch down. When it comes to adding in cover crops to your rotation, you’ll be wanting to put them in at every opportunity to enrich your soil with extra nutrients and lock in the top soil layer from the effects of wind or rain washing.

Depending on the crops you intend to grow each season, you’ll want crops that mulch down at different rates for specific times of the year. More on why this is important in the first point below.

Slow mulching cover crops: grasses including sudangrass, reed canary grass and ryegrass take much longer to mulch down and will also provide good weed coverage while they do so. If you want your mulch to last until spring time, try planting the cover crop in summer so it will die naturally over winter, saving you the trouble.

Fast mulching cover crops: buckwheat and hairy vetch break down quickly, and you can always chop them down to speed up the process further and give them a light mix in (more details below).

And of course, if you’re looking to fix more nitrogen into your soil you’d be much better off with a legume type cover crop like soybeans, which can also be harvested for profit.

Cover crops are for all times of the year and even during cash crop growing season. Find a balance and use different crop factors together to boost yield improvement. If your fields are quite compacted when it comes to growing your crop, try planting a few cover crops with deep root systems in the field at the same time to break it up. Apply the same logic for weed suppression etc. Ensure that your cover crop and cash crop won’t be competing for nutrients first. Run a test on a small piece of land first if you have any doubts.

4 Tips and Tools Needed for Successful No-Till Farming

Mulching down. Hard.

The more mulching you do, the more you should improve the overall soil quality. According to the executive director of Rodale Institute (a non-profit, pioneering organic farm), you should aim to have at least 5000 pounds of dry matter to mulch down per acre – as the old adage says, “the more the merrier”. This is easy to calculate when you’ve kept track of how your cover crops are growing and know the expected volume.

To aid mulching down, you can go and chop down stalks and vegetation (effective on grass cover crops you need to mulch quickly) or add mulch from other fields, patching up places where necessary. The more you mulch, the more you add nutrition to the top layer of your soil. Of course, the most effective mulching takes years of crop rotation and decomposition to really penetrate the soil and ensure it is nutritious and suitable for farming to a deep level.

Prepare for sowing.

Even if you’ve never used no-till techniques before, you should be know that the type of seed, shape, time of year and most importantly the crop you’re planting, determines your method of sowing.

There are some extravagant methods out there, including firing the seeds individually into the earth via a drone! Don’t forget to check out our article on drones here. When you’re not tilling your soil, you’re going to have a harder time with crops that need loose aerated soils to really develop strong roots. This is where mulching is so important. Some seeds can be sown straight into the mulch, while others you’ll need to wait for the mulch to fully decompose without compacting the soil too much.

Look for machine attachments that slice the earth, rather than tilling it too much when you’re sowing seeds, especially for those crops with small leaves when they first germinate, as a heavy mulch will squash them if not prepared correctly.

Fork that earth good.

There’s nothing wrong with a light till or gentle forking of the earth every few years to mix things up a bit. The key is to try and get the benefits of tilling soil (reduce compaction, spread around the mulch nutrients so they penetrate deeper into the soil etc.) without the problems you eradicated by opting for no-till farming in the first place.

This is best done manually with a fork, or you can invest in some light tilling equipment for large fields that can’t be turned by hand. Think broadfork of subsoiler. You’re looking to give it a light mix up with the fork, gently turning the soil without going to deep and really tearing things up. It’s hard work, but when you’re looking to plant high-profit crops next like strawberries, it makes sense to take a little extra care of your soil.

Consider your soil type before you begin this too. If you’re dealing with heavy clay soils, mixing in the mulch will be hard work but very beneficial to improving the overall quality, so you could consider investing in specialty light-till equipment. On the other hand, if you’ve got sandy type soils that little mixing of the top layer could do a lot of damage when strong winds and erosion attack, so best start with a little tester section and go about manually with a fork to ensure you don’t over mix. We have a fantastic article on soil types on our blog, so check that out for a quick guide to soil types before you get busy with the forking.

The time of year may also change your decision when it comes to a light till – in the cold months of very early spring the bacteria, wildlife and other micro-organisms in the soil will be minimal compared to a few months later. A light tilling at this time might be a good idea, depending on how extreme the weather is at this time for your farm.

Once you’ve forked if necessary and successfully sown your crop, farming doesn’t really differ that much to heavy tillage farming. Take care of your crops and reduce the amount of fertiliser you’d normally use (mulch should take care of your crop’s nutrient needs) and watch them grow with pride.

When it comes to harvest time you can leave the vegetative waste on your fields to mulch down if needed, but make sure that this will be beneficial for your crop rotation and will be complimented by the mulch created from the cover crops you’ll be planting next. For example, some crops might decompose to be a specific nutrient rich mulch which is perfect for your cover crop as they tend to reduce that nutrient in the soil. Be wise and make sure your farm crop rotation is working correctly.

 

So there you have it, 4 excellent tips to help you manage no-till practices on your farm! We sincerely hope you’ve found them useful and wish you the best of luck with your future farm management.

Now that we’re on the topic of farm management, perhaps you should take another look at your management practices. After all, precision agriculture isn’t just about the way you physically farm, it’s about making precise decisions using accurate data. To accurately measure and calculate how no-tilling techniques are working for you farm, and if they’re worth continuing, you’ll need to start keeping records from day 1.

Keep a detailed spreadsheet of data that you can use to make informed decisions on in later years. Take note of not just overall harvests, but production of crop per acre and in which fields. Measuring yield improvement means that you’ll need to record data before and after starting no tilling practices. Another good idea to measure how no-tilling practices can improve soil on your farm is to introduce it to only one field first to compare it to a pro-tilling field: just make sure that both fields are the same acreage and soil type before you begin or your results will be difficult to compare!

As with many organic farming practices, the results of no-tillage farming can be very long term, with only gradual improvements to soil as each season slowly mulches down. Keep at it, keep positive and make sure you’re farming efficiently and to your farm management plan. For more details and fantastic farm management ideas check out other articles on tilling and cutting edge agricultural technology on our blog.

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