Many coffee shop conversations among farmers after harvest this fall turned out to be pretty much the same as in previous years. When talking about how their crops turned out, the emphasis always seems to be on yield rather than profit among growers still using extensive tillage.

Richard Halopka maintains the emphasis needs to center around net profit rather than yield. To get his point across, the Extension crops and soils agent in Clark County, Wis., shares the story of two very successful farmers who let’s assume were each growing 785 acres of soybeans. The major difference is that one is a no-tiller while the other is still doing intensive tillage.

As  Halopka’s tale goes, the two growers meet in a local coffee shop and the conversation soon turns to comparing soybean yields. As it turns out, the “clean-tiller” had a 10-bushel-per-acre advantage over the no-tiller and remarked, “I told you no-till doesn’t work.”

While the coffee shop story could end here, Halopka says it’s time to gather the facts about what really took place in their bean fields. And to demonstrate how the innovative no-tiller kept costs under control.

Tillage Dollars

The no-tiller only made one pass to plant. The “clean-tiller” followed corn harvest with moldboard plowing, then went overboard in the spring with a disc, followed by a harrow, mulching, planting and even rolling the bean field after planting. At $15 per pass, that’s a $75-per-acre boost in costs compared to no-tilling.

Seed Expense

The no-tiller planted treated beans at a rate of 140,000 seeds per acre. While the “clean tiller” used treated seed, he planted a thicker stand with 180,000 seeds per acre. This led to an extra $17-per-acre cost.

Weeds, Insects, Disease 

Both farmers followed similar weed control programs. Using integrated pest management and scouting fields each week, the no-tiller was fortunate and didn’t need to apply additional pesticides this year.

On the other hand, the “clean-tiller” didn’t bother to scout his fields, preferring to take preventive steps to “protect” his yield. When spraying herbicides, he added a micronutrient pack that only cost $3 per acre. Since he’d  heard comments about potential white-mold issues, he sprayed a fungicide. And as long as he was going across the field, he added a $3-per-acre insecticide. This all added up to $33 per acre.

While both farmers locked in to a $9-per-bushel soybean price, let’s see how they measured up in terms of net profit.

The “clean-tiller” had an additional $90 of gross income per acre with the higher yield compared to the no-tiller. However, the extra costs of $17 for seed, $75 for tillage and $33 per acre for pesticides adds up to an extra $125 per acre.

With the “clean-tiller’s” extra $90 of income offset by $125 in higher costs, the no-tiller came out $35 per acre ahead.

As the two growers walked out of the coffee shop, the no-tiller congratulated his tillage happy neighbor on his yield advantage. There was a smile on the no-tiller’s face as he walked to his pickup truck, knowing he’d come out ahead to the tune of $27,475 on his 785 acres of soybeans, thanks to the benefits of a better management strategy and no-till.

“Profit per will win over yield per acre any day, especially in these tough economic times” says Halopka. “To be profitable in a tight-margin era, a farmer must know the total cost of inputs. Yield alone doesn’t guarantee profit.”

Being innovators and willing to try new ideas, most no-tillers learned long ago that profit per acre is a much more important consideration than just looking at yield.