By Neil Sass, Area Soil Scientist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
No-till is one of the most popular and effective conservation practices but making the switch from tilling to not can be intimidating. No-till allows farmers to grow crops with minimal disturbance to their fields and the organisms that live in the soil. This increases soil health while also reducing the cost of fuel and labor. Here are 6 tips for transitioning to no-till from farmers who’ve been there.
1. Start planning at least 1 year before implementation
Considerations should include:
a. Smooth field surface
b. Sufficient fertility and appropriate pH
c. Adequate drainage
d. Changes to weed and nutrient management
e. Manage compaction
f. Adapting equipment
g. Even distribution of crop residue
h. Implementing cover crops
2. Pick an easy entry point and crop
a. After a perennial crop
b. After a cover crop – adding a cover crop to your system will speed up the process of building Soil Health.
c. Plant the right crop your first year.
For example, in the Midwest, consider planting soybeans the first year. They are more forgiving of soil conditions and nitrogen immobilization.
3. Select the right seeds
a. Select for more than just yield. Including good seedling and root vigor.
b. Talk to local producers using no-till about managing pests through seed treatment
4. Set up your planter correctly
a. Every seed should be placed at exactly the same depth at exactly the same spacing in exactly the same environment.
b. Planter should be level. Row units run true.
c. Depth gauging wheels should have uniform pressure.
d. Row cleaners should move residue, not soil. Row cleaner should not work against depth control.
e. Sharp disk openers & quality closing wheels properly aligned.
5. Plant according to soil conditions, not the calendar
a. Stay out if too wet!
b. Follow equipment manufacturer recommendations for speed.
c. Keep the planting pass sacred. You get one chance to plant that seed.
6. Seek advice and recommendations from successful no-tillers
No-till is a completely different system of farming, doing things in the same old way can lead to disappointment. Be prepared to learn and adapt.
Neil Sass, NRCS Area Soil Scientist, in West Union, Iowa, is the creator of No-Till November and owner of a no-till farm.