In the nearly 4 years I’ve been with No-Till Farmer magazine, I’ve viewed Ohio State University Extension’s website as a great source of quality information, especially for no-tillers. So I was disappointed to see a recent article suggesting that no-tillers consider tilling their fields.
The article, “When is it Time for a No-Till Field to Be Tilled?” lists four problems that can occur in no-tilled fields and be “remedied” by tillage: disease pathogens and insects that survive on crop residue, weeds and soil drainage. While I won’t argue whether tillage can or can’t help resolve these problems, why not look at some possible solutions that allow no-tillers to maintain their tillage-free systems?
Diseases and Insects on Crop Residue
As Dakota Lakes Research Farm director Dwayne Beck explained in a recent podcast episode, if there’s a weed, disease or insect in your field, it’s there because your system is lacking diversity. It’s something agronomist and no-tiller Dan Davidson has seen as well, noting that most corn disease problems occur in continuous corn rotations — so the longer the rotation, the less risk of an outbreak.
Davidson also recommends no-tillers be observant about potential disease outbreaks and have a plan in place in case one occurs. Growers can plant varieties that are resistant or have good tolerance scores against diseases that might be a threat. They should also consider ways they can promote plant health and, if necessary, use fungicides. For more tips and information on battling no-till diseases, read Davidson’s No-Till Notes column.
When it comes to weeds, the Ohio State article names true armyworm — which likes grassy weeds and cover crops — and fall armyworm as some of the top insect culprits in no-till, along with slugs. Scouting is critical with both pests, and for armyworms it may be better to make early herbicide applications to terminate weeds and cover crops, as this removes a site for the pests to lay their eggs, says Michigan State University Extension entomologist Christina DiFonzo. For slugs, check out the article, “6 Tips to Help No-Tillers Eradicate Yield Robbing Slugs.”
The Ohio State article admits that most weeds are adequately controlled in no-till systems with herbicides, but tillage can be effective for biennial and perennial weeds, and may control marestail for a season.
While there are a lot of factors that determine how a grower should manage a specific weed, generally we know that no-till can sometimes help reduce weed problems because it keeps their seeds on the soil surface, which promotes seed predation. Using cover crops, a diverse rotation and multiple herbicide modes of action are also key to battling no-till weeds.
If you’re a subscriber of our print publication, you’ll know we’re currently running a series on how to manage some of the most problematic weeds in no-till — and tillage is not one of the solutions. So far we’ve covered marestail, waterhemp and Palmer amaranth.
The article says that in poorly drained fields, tillage can help reduce yield losses from late planting by warming up and drying out the soil quicker in the spring. But I’ve heard from some no-tillers that they’re actually planting earlier than their conventional neighbors, thanks to good soil structure and soil health they’ve built over the years.
Yes, it may take awhile for no-till soils to develop a good structure and microbial life. But using tillage sets the process back to square one. Instead, growers could consider using cover crops, which can help dry out fields earlier by taking up soil moisture, increase water infiltration due to their root growth, and aid in the overall development of soil health. Installing tile is another solution no-tillers have adopted to manage water in their fields.
I think it’s also important to note that even if no-tillers plant later, it doesn’t automatically mean there will be a yield lag. And let’s not forget that even if a yield lag does occur, growers may still earn a better profit over conventional tillage due to the reduction in equipment, labor and fuel costs required for tillage.
I understand that no-till isn’t a perfect practice — and there may be some instances where tillage is necessary to resolve a specific problem in a field — but I think tillage should be viewed as an ultimate last resort, after all other management options have been tested and failed.
Given the damage tillage does to the soil and other aspects of the environment, suggesting that no-tillers consider tilling their fields to resolve certain issues without offering alternative solutions is disappointing. It’s these types of articles I fear scare and discourage some growers away from trying no-till in the first place.