In midsummer, retired Ohio State University agricultural engineer Randall Reeder met with a group of Western Australian no-till farmers that were looking at U.S. agriculture. While touring Dave Brandt’s no-till corn, soybean and cover-crop operation at Carroll, Ohio, and viewing neighboring fields that were still being tilled, there were questions on why more American growers do not practice no-till.

One Australian farmer asked a simple question: “If no-till is so good, why don’t all of Dave’s neighbors do it?”

He went on to point out that every farmer in Western Australia practices no-till because the area is so dry. They would go broke if they plowed and lost even a small amount of valuable moisture.

How would you answer the Australian’s question?

Too Many Government Bailouts

Reeder replied that one reason as to why many U.S. growers continue to practice tillage is due to the fact that federal government support programs, including crop insurance, to reduce the risk of financial failure. U.S. Extension educators have more than 100 years of experience teaching farmers how to use new and better practices, but Reeder also pointed out that not all farmers listen and learn, and some probably never will when it comes to tillage concerns.

Still another result of offering commodity support prices is that it translates into higher land values, including rising cash rents. 

Having spent part of a year working in Australia, Reeder knows firsthand the challenges that growers face in these extremely dry areas.

“Since Australia has no crop insurance, farmers have to adopt practices that reduce risk,” he says. “In Western Australia — and most of Australia — the dry climate means that they have to preserve precious rainfall and make every millimeter of moisture count. They’ve learned [that] evaporation from bare, tilled ground is wasteful.”

In North America, Reeder says that the same would likely be true in limited-rainfall areas. And he is convinced that farmers who typically collect crop insurance in 2 out of 5 years due to drought would likely change their practices if they did not have the crop insurance safety net that reduces financial risk.

Net Profit Protection

Removing U.S. government programs would cause farmers to look more closely at per-acre costs and profit. Yet, there is still a majority of farmers who feel strongly that their best bet is to till every year or two instead of shifting to continuous no-till. Until these growers learn to effectively manage continuous no-till, some form of tillage may still be their best option, regardless of government support.

If Congress votes to eliminate or further limit commodity price-support programs, Reeder believes that farmers might select different crops to plant. However, he is not totally convinced how much change there might be with tillage practices or crop rotations.