Park Your Plow: 5 Tips for the No-Till-Curious

Posted by Elizabeth Creech, Natural Resources Conservation Service in Farming Conservation
Nov 05, 2018

Reduced erosion. Saved time and fuel. Improved nutrient cycling, soil moisture, and resiliency in the face of drought. You likely already know the potential benefits of no-till.

No-till farmers grow crops with minimal disturbance to their fields and the organisms that call them home. This builds healthier soils while reducing money spent on fuel and labor – a win-win.

With harvest season winding down, you’re no doubt making an important decision for your working land. Will you hook up the plow, or is this the year you’ll park it for good? If you’d like to try no-till, we wrote this for you.

No-till minimizes soil disturbance while leaving valuable cover and reducing erosion. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
No-till minimizes soil disturbance while leaving valuable cover and reducing erosion. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

Use these 5 tips to go from no-till-curious to no-till farmer.

1. Spread your residue during fall harvest.

Plowing isn’t the only way to prepare a field for next spring’s planting.

Evenly distribute residue that will be left in the field while harvesting your cash crop to manage against erosion and allow for a uniform breakdown of nutrients and organic matter. Residue can provide a valuable base of cover for your ground over winter.

Prepare for a successful spring planting with an even distribution of residue left over from your fall harvest. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
Prepare for a successful spring planting with an even distribution of residue left over from your fall harvest. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

2. Don’t forget about cover crops.

Farmers traditionally till to break up soil and prepare seedbeds. Over time, tillage can degrade structure and create highly compacted soils that seemingly “need” to be tilled before spring planting.

Plant cool-season cover crops to reduce compaction, build organic matter, and hold your soil in place. Make sure to pick a cover crop species or mix that compliments your cash crop.

If you’re starting with a highly-compacted field, use cover crop species that are meant to break up compaction. Daikon radish is often one great option.

Daikon radish – commonly called tillage radish – can break up plow pans while adding organic matter. Photo Credit: USDA
Daikon radish – commonly called tillage radish – can break up plow pans while adding organic matter. Photo Credit: USDA

3. Choose equipment with your end-goal in mind.

Simple but critical: Plan before you buy.

Will you plant next year’s cash crop into green cover, terminated cover, or fall residue? Will you drill or broadcast your seeds?

Your operation may change over time, but establishing working goals now will keep you from buying equipment you don’t ultimately want.

Some USDA service centers have no-till drills and other equipment you can rent for minimal fees to get started. All offices are staffed with experts who’d be happy to talk through your specific management goals.

Think about how you’ll terminate your cover and plant your cash crop next spring. Using a roller crimper with a no-till drill is just one option. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
Think about how you’ll terminate your cover and plant your cash crop next spring. Using a roller crimper with a no-till drill is just one option. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

4. Treat no-till adoption as a marathon, not a sprint. Track results along the way.

Building healthy, resilient soil takes time. Some farmers report yield increases after their first year of no-till, but that shouldn’t be your main goal.

You can quantify several economic benefits of switching to no-till: fuel savings, time savings, eventual fertilizer reductions. By tracking these measures along with changes in yield, you’ll gain a truer sense of the impact of no-till across your operation.

Have your soil tested at least once every four years and conduct your own informal assessments regularly. Healthy soils are full of living organisms.

Take note of the life inside of your soil, and how it changes over time. Healthy soils are generally full of earthworms and other organisms. Photo Credit: Colette Kessler, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
Take note of the life inside of your soil, and how it changes over time. Healthy soils are generally full of earthworms and other organisms. Photo Credit: Colette Kessler, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

5. Give us a visit. We’re here to help.

Stop by your local service center to learn more about integrating no-till and other conservation practices into your management plan. We’re here to help you reach conservation goals that support your farm’s production needs.

Visit your local USDA service center today to get started with a conservation plan for your working land. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service
Visit your local USDA service center today to get started with a conservation plan for your working land. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service

Farmers across the country have reduced erosion, held valuable nutrients in-field, saved money on fuel, and increased their soil’s resiliency by minimizing tillage.

Is this the year you’ll try no-till? If so, having a strong plan in place will help you leave your plow parked for good.

Elizabeth Creech is a public affairs specialist serving USDA's Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Risk Management Agency. She can be reached at elizabeth.creech@wdc.usda.gov

Category/Topic: Farming Conservation