With more than a decade of no-till under his belt, Michael Crowell has learned a thing or two about successfully adopting the practice in Turlock, Calif.

Located about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco, where average annual precipitation is about 12 inches, Crowell first tried no-till on 30 acres of corn silage for his dairy farm. He thought it did great, so he transitioned all 270 acres to the system the following year.

At the 2016 National No-Tillage Conference held in Indianapolis this past January, Crowell shared three things he’s learned about moving from full-fledged tillage to an undisturbed system.

1. It takes time.

Crowell shared that soil microbials, surface organic matter and root structure all require time to take hold as they’ve been destroyed from years of tillage. And the changes don’t occur overnight.

“Because you’ve been tilling the soil, you get rid of that root structure,” he says. “You never gave a chance for those roots to establish true pores and porosity down through the soil. All those things had to come to pass and they didn’t happen in the first year.”

Crowell says the goal is to achieve a soil that’s 50% soil aggregates and fertility, 25% air and 25% moisture. 

2. Take care of things that may be better done with tillage before jumping in.

Out in California where they use gravity-fed irrigation, Crowell says you want to have a perfectly leveled soil, so getting that achieved with a tillage pass would be ideal before moving to no-till. In the Midwest, it may be installing tile to assist with drainage problems. Crowell also recommends checking for serious compaction levels that could warrant ripping before beginning no-till.

3. Understand the importance of fertility balance in your soil.

If you’ve been no-tilling for awhile and feel your soils are still too tight, it could be a compaction problem. Or it could be your fertility.

Crowell explains that if you’ve been over-applying nitrogen (N), it will latch onto calcium in the soil and take it throughout the soil profile. That will skew the calcium-to-magnesium ratio, and if there’s too much magnesium, then your soils may tighten up.

Crowell notes that Ray Ward, founder and president of Ward Laboratories, prefers to see a calcium-to-magnesium ratio of 68:12.

It also goes back to taking good soil samples, Crowell says, to avoid over-application of N in the first place.

You can learn more about Crowell’s experience with no-till in this “What I’ve Learned from No-Tilling” article published in 2011.

If you’ve been no-tilling for several years, do you agree with Crowell’s lessons? What else have you learned since adopting the practice? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment below.