Driving through southeastern Minnesota earlier this year, it was clear that no-till was the exception, not the rule. Cold, wet soils can be a challenge for no-till, but the working up of rolling ground and steep slopes that I saw also means there’s greater erosion. 

The good news is there are some trailblazers in the state who are proving no-till has its place in colder northern climates. In Harmony, Minn., Travis Willford and his father, Arden, have been no-tilling since 2003 and started using cover crops 4 years ago. Travis shared a few pointers for other northern growers looking to adopt the practice.

1. Have some patience, and a positive outlook. “You have to have the right mindset,” Travis says. “You have to want it to work.” 

That’s particularly the case at planting time, when a grower’s patience may be tested. Travis says this year they planted 1½ weeks later than their neighbor, but both of their corn crops are tasseling at the same time. 

As time goes on, no-tillers may find they’re able to get in fields earlier than their neighbors. In one particularly wet year, the Willfords were able to get in their fields 2-3 days earlier than their neighbors who use tillage because their soil had the structure to hold up their equipment.

2. Explore different systems. With different soils and conditions, a new no-tiller will likely need to experiment with different row cleaners, closing wheels and other attachments to see which works best for his fields. 

Travis advises examining the options and doing comparisons, but to not put on too many different systems at once, as it may be difficult to see the differences between them all.

3. Try gypsum in fields. Travis says they’ve been using more gypsum over the years and thinks it would help the transition to no-till. 

“It starts the healing process of the ground from being worked so long,” he explains.

Gypsum is applied on almost all their acres going to corn, which the Willfords’ variable-rate apply based off of grid samples. Travis says they’re currently applying 250 pounds per acre for maintenance. They’ve seen the gypsum help improve their soil structure and water infiltration rate.