Along with enjoying numerous environmental benefits, veteran no-tillers for many years have cashed in on no-till’s additional profitability as a result of labor savings and reduced equipment costs. In fact, many growers credit no-till with $100 or more per acre in increased net profit compared to using other tillage systems.

With benefits such as boosting the soil’s biological capability, improving nutrient cycling, water retention, water holding capacity, soil tilth and much more, most no-tillers are totally sold on this reduced tillage system. Add cover crops and maybe a few other conservation practices to the system and the economic benefits with no-till can be dramatic.

Jaw-Dropping Results

Researchers at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, Mich., recently published results from a long-term study started in 1989 that shows no-till offers consistent benefits to the environment, yields and economics. The data from scientists Sarah Cusser and Nick Haddad confirm what many long-time no-till farmers already know — that significant boosts in yield and profitability can be realized by reducing tillage. 

Analyzing data from a continuing research study spanning more than 3 decades, the researchers explored the long-term agricultural and environmental effects of converting to no-till.

“Every year for more than 30 years, the yield in no-till treatments increased vs. the yield in tilled treatments — every year,” Haddad notes. “I would have expected a point where the yields and economic benefits reached their peak, but they continued to rise. It was jaw dropping.”

The increase in yields for a corn-soybean-wheat rotation after 30 years amounted to 40 bushels per acre. While scientists know yields from no-till often initially increase because of its benefits to the environment, including greater moisture retention in the soil due to a higher percentage of organic matter, Haddad says it’s still unclear why yields continued to increase every year for over three decades.

There hasn’t been any tillage in the no-till plots since the study began. The tilled plots included moldboard plowing in the spring from 1989 to 1998 when it was replaced with chisel plowing. 

Based on investment assumptions required in converting from conventional tilling to no-till in 1989, profits were initially reduced. This was the case despite yield increases right from the start with no-till.

“The initial economic losses reflected the costs inherent in new equipment, chemical costs and labor input needed at that time,” Haddad says. “As these costs were met, profits rose. Even better, current farming practices eliminate these costs, such that the financial benefits of no-till practices accrue nearly immediately.”

Long-Term Data Needed

The study also demonstrated the importance of long-term research, which is particularly true with many management changes that can be slow to develop and detect, as is often the case with no-till.

“The findings drive home the importance of long-term studies because they reveal unexpected results,” says Haddad. “The typical duration for a grant is maybe 5 years. Our study shows that research of such short duration may be misleading. For this study, there were many slices of time when we would have gotten the wrong answer, especially if the study had lasted less than 10 years.”

In a 2015 analysis of 520 worldwide no-till studies that were conducted across a range of climates, soils and crop types, only 60 projects were carried out for more than 10 years. 

As Cusser points out, the longer the period of time, the higher the potential for profit. Short-term concerns can push up costs early on in a conversion to no-till. Other factors may require 15 years or more to generate consistent results.

Most no-tillers don’t have to be sold on the many benefits reduced tillage has brought to their operations. But the fact that no-till never once in more than 30 years in this study failed to out-perform corn, soybeans and wheat grown on tilled ground is amazing. 

Backed up with long-term data, one of the key messages from this study is that moving to 100% continuous no-till can have very positive economic and environmental benefits. These findings can particularly benefit growers who still alternate no-till with traditional tillage due to perceived differences in corn and soybean yield response.