While many people are convinced no-till is the way to farm, many others are convinced it does not work, says Jim Johnson, a soils and crop consultant for the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation.
"Clearly no-till farming can work, but failures typically occur because of one or more of these 10 reasons," Johnson says.
1. Selecting the wrong seed variety. No-till seedlings may experience cooler and wetter seedbeds. Planting varieties that tolerate these conditions is important.
2. Lack of crop rotation. Crop rotation is important to break up disease, insect and weed cycles. Double-cropping the same crops every year is not a crop rotation. A field must grow a different crop at the same time of year in consecutive years to be in a rotation.
3. Lack of equipment. The main equipment needed is a no-till planter and a sprayer. The technology of both of these has improved significantly in the past decade. Using old equipment may be of as little benefit as using the wrong equipment.
4. Trying to reduce inputs and expense. Often, producers try to use lower rates of herbicide or fewer herbicide applications than needed. It's wise to plan on spending at least as much on herbicide as would have been spent on tillage. Time, labor, soil moisture, and wear and tear on equipment may all be saved, but not pesticide dollars.
5. Failure to correct nutrient deficiencies before starting. Fertilizer and lime can be surface-applied, but they don't move much below the top 1 inch of soil without some type of tillage. Ideally, soil nutrient levels should be adequate throughout the rooting depth and not just in the top inch of soil; yields may suffer if the levels aren't sufficient.
6. Failure to leave enough residue. Residue serves many functions, such as catching precipitation, feeding beneficial soil microorganisms, preventing topsoil and nutrients from eroding, covering bare soil so weeds have difficulty germinating and preventing soil crusting.
7. Not having equipment properly adjusted. Since pesticides are heavily relied upon in no-till, sprayers must be properly equipped, calibrated and operated. Likewise, pressure on disc openers and closing wheels on planters and drills must also be properly adjusted.
8. Lack of knowledge. No-till farming is not the same as conventional farming. It involves much more than simply not plowing. It requires different skill sets to optimize all the required inputs.
9. Lack of attention to detail. To illustrate this point, consider this example: a plow controls all small weeds equally well, but pesticides are more selective. Spraying at the right time and right rate with the best equipment does no good if the wrong pesticide is used for the target weed or other pest. Everything must be done correctly.
10. A failure to commit to making it work. This is the reason for most no-till failures. If a producer doesn't think no-till will work and doesn't want to make it work, it probably won't. No-till farming is a commitment to a long-term process of soil management. The production benefits of no-till are greater in Year 20 than in Year 2. This means no-tilling for 3 years and then plowing every fourth year isn't really no-till; it's just not plowing for 3 years.
"Historically, tillage was performed to prepare a seedbed and control weeds," Johnson says. "No-till planters and herbicides are available to accomplish these tasks. With commitment and experience, no-till can and will work."