By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services, Adapted from article by Elizabeth Creech, NRCS.
Veteran no-tillers know that no-till farming offers several benefits including keeping soil in place, improved nutrient recycling; savings on labor and fuel; and improved water infiltration, water storage, and drought resiliency. No-till means that farmers plant into an undisturbed soil that is teaming with microbes. Beneficial microbes prefer a stable environment to grow, so soil health improves over time.
High fuel prices, high inputs costs for chemicals and fertilizer, labor shortages, and weather issues are starting to make no-till farming more appealing. Getting started in no-till can be challenging because it is a different system and it takes time to learn new skills. Here are some tips for getting started.
First, it helps to solve some of your existing problems. Make sure you have adequate drainage, take care of the weeds, and soil tests to address fertility issues. Do not forget to check on micro-nutrient levels. No-till can help with these problems over time, but its difficult to get started no-tilling when you have multiple problems.
Second, it’s all about good soil structure and biology especially having healthy soil microbes. No-till by itself may only be 1/3 of the solution, the cover crops is the other 2/3. In order to improve soil structure, you need live roots year-round to feed the microbes. Together they improve the soil over time and then feed your main cash crop. Most cover crops can take out about 6-12 inches of soil compaction per year, so it may take 2-5 years to get your soils back in shape.
Third, if possible, expand your crop rotation. Add wheat or hay or another crop to a typical corn-soybean rotation. The best place to try no-till is after a hay or pasture. The soil structure is better and the microbes are healthy. If wheat is added to the rotation, cover crops should be planted after the wheat straw is harvested to jump start the new no-till system. Adding some manure to the cover crops is another way to stimulate soil health.
Fourth, getting started with no-till begins in the fall. Spread your crop residue thin during fall harvest. To much residue in one place causes insects, slugs, and voles to proliferate. To much crop residue in one place initially reduces residue decomposition and leaves the rest of your ground bare. Too much residue cause crops to be streaky next year when they growing, especially if the carbon to nitrogen ration is too high.
Fifth, a cover crop should be planted after harvest. Cereal rye is usually planted after corn. Drilling is best but if it’s a wet fall, aerial seeding can be successful. If planting a cover crop after soybeans, plant it like wheat, after an early maturing soybean variety. Daikon radish with oats is often a great option after early maturing soybeans and are easy to no-till into next spring. Cool season cover crops which survive the winter will reduce compaction, build organic matter, and reduce soil erosion, but they need to be terminated in the spring. If you’re starting with a highly-compacted field, use cover crop species that are meant to break up compaction (radish, oats, cereal rye). Pick cover crop species or mixes that compliments your cash crop. Grass cover crops before soybeans and legume or clovers before corn generally work best.
Six, having and maintaining good no-till equipment is critical. Sharp disc blades are required to slice through cover crop and plant residue to get good seed-to-soil contact next spring. There are several things to think about, especially what type of conditions you will be planting into next spring. Straight no-till with no cover crop is different than planting into a winter killed cover crop versus planting green into a live crop. Think ahead about how you will terminate a cover crop in the spring. Often farmers use a burndown herbicide like glyphosate (Roundup), but glyphosate has been shown to chelate or tie up soil nutrients and can reduce soil health for several days (weeks or months??). A crimper crop roller can be used to terminate most spring green cover crops.
Seventh, be patient. Good advice is “Treat no-till as a marathon, not a sprint.” Good records help you reduce repeating costly mistakes. It takes time to build healthy resilient soils and do not expect higher crop yields immediately. Initially the economic benefits do not come from higher yields but economic savings in reduced fuel costs, less labor, eventually less fertilizer, and once your fields are healthy, less chemicals to control pests (less weeds, insects, and diseases). It helps to have a network of friends, farmers, consultants, and teachers that can help you solve problems.