If a no-till cropping system provided the highest yields and greatest net profit, what tillage system would you use?

Ponder that question awhile before answering. How would your neighboring farmers answer the question? If those two conditions were met, wouldn’t "no-till" be the unanimous response?

If we overcome the “cons” that some farmers mention — lower yields, less profit —then the “pros” of no-till win. In this discussion, I’m including ridge-till and strip-till as no-till. Strip-till ahead of corn can often provide an ideal transition to pure no-till.

No-Till's benefits           

When David Brandt of Fairfield County, Ohio, started farming he chose no-till.

“I wanted to minimize erosion and save labor," Brandt says. "I did not have to buy as much machinery, and by saving topsoil I also saved on fertilizer.”

Other benefits that experienced no-till farmers cite include: improved soil quality, less fuel, water conservation and less compaction.

Bill Richards of Pickaway County, Ohio, has been no-tilling for more than 40 years. “Planting in continuous no-till gets easier every year,” Richards says. “Water infiltration has increased dramatically and soil quality has improved.”

Two centuries of no-till?

I asked the audience at an ag conference in Orlando, Fla., last January to imagine the following scenario: How would farming been different if in Illinois in 1830, John Deere had been a chemist instead of a blacksmith and had invented Roundup instead of a steel moldboard plow?

I’m sure someone (maybe Cyrus McCormick) would have soon built a heavy-duty planter and no-till would have been the conventional tillage system for the last 200 years. Without plowing, many sloping fields in Ohio would still have a consistent layer of topsoil and lakes and rivers would be cleaner with less dredging required. No Dust Bowl in the Great Plains; maybe no hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico

We can’t rewrite history, but we can influence the future. If all of our agronomic research focused on no-till cropping, progress toward higher yields should accelerate. How much more do we need to learn about plowing? Why not concentrate on no-till?

Tillage extremes

Let’s consider tillage extremes. Continuous no-till is at one extreme. At the other extreme is moldboard plowing or similar system that leaves no crop residue on the surface and breaks up the soil structure.

In between these extremes are many tillage choices. A good goal is for farmers to get as close to no-till as feasible. It seems logical that if farmers are disappointed with yields after 3 to 5 years of no-till, that they would  identify the specific problem and then use the least amount of tillage to solve it. An implement with rolling spikes or straight coulters may provide the desired soil aeration and warming.

Ruts and compaction from the late, wet harvest in 2009 are a problem for many farmers. Interestingly, most farmers with continuous no-till have less of a problem than where the fields had been tilled. Our compaction research since 2002 at the Northwest Experiment Station, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, has shown that the firm soil structure with continuous no-till helped yields because that soil resists compaction better than deep-tilled soil.

My suggestion is to do the least amount of shallow tillage necessary to level out combine ruts, then deal with any lingering compaction problems after harvest.

Cover crops

 Cover crops are receiving a lot of attention. At No-Till Farmer's National No-Tillage Conference in Des Moines last January, almost half the farmers said they were using or at least experimenting with cover crops. A farmer may find a biological solution that’s better than a mechanical solution by selecting an appropriate cover crop. Deep-rooting cover crops can work through compaction and provide channels for the roots of the main crop. Cover crops can protect the soil surface through the winter and add and store nutrients.

In Ohio in 2009, the top no-till corn yield was just 8 bushels per acre less than the overall top yield in the National Corn Growers Association’s yield contest. I see continuous no-till increasing both yield and profit. This will add more value to the already recognized “pros” of environmental benefits and improved soil quality for the long-term necessity of increasing worldwide food production.

(Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in Ohio’s Country Journal. Randall Reeder can be reached at 614-292-6648, or reeder.1@osu.edu.)