Part II – What to Expect When Going No-till

Welcome to Part II of This Series on No-till Farming.

We left off discussing the relationship of the land, what it produces, and the consumers who buy the end product. In this segment, we look again at relationships but we separate the land from the farmer. This is because there are two big things that happen in the successful conversion of farms from disc farming to no-till. First, the farmer changes and then the land changes. What this means is that the results are very dependent on how the farmer approaches this change.

The Land from Disc to No-till

It is kind of a blank slate – the land. Disc farming does many things, two of which are it breaks up the organic food webs and reduces organic matter in the soil. This is why plow and disc farms have thinner top layers usually with a compressed layer that acts like hardpan. Switching from disc to no-till essentially means that you have to undo all of the issues that disc farming creates. What you gain is better quality soil, a decrease in water and wind erosion, better saturation of rows from irrigation, better or equal crop yield, and eventually, fewer weeds. These are all end goals. So, what happens between the start and end goals?  Here is a snapshot of the first few years.

Years one-three – This is the big switch – Plan for success, but don’t expect a lot of what you do to change. Recordkeeping is a great tool – use it. For market farming the process of switching is a little different from big AG farms. The focus remains the same, building soil nutrients. Moving away from disc farming to no-till means you are moving away from the inputs needed to ramp a field up for spring growth. You should expect to increase nitrogen usage for the first several years. The soil is devoid of the organic means to produce nitrogen, but that changes over time and those costs decrease.

Equipment changes – the basic change is the removal of disc units and the implementation of drills or spike seeders. You also really want to pay attention to how you set up your drill so that it has the right pressure and depth. In no-till, the idea is to disturb the ground as little as possible. To that end, you switch from a tiller, plow or disc to a drill. The drill pokes a hole in the ground and your seeder seeds the hole. This method disturbs the soil biota the least and it keeps the soil aggregates larger, which means better water infiltration and improved soil hydration. The crop residue on the surface also helps the soil to retain moisture. As the years progress, the soil becomes better able to handle drought because the water saturates deeper.

The field prep from disc to no-till is basically to spread organic matter – the last crop – over the field. What begins to happen is that the soil biota begin to grow – the organisms that breakdown the crop residue multiply.

Weeds – You should not expect to see different types of weeds – At least not until year three. This is because no-till does not bring in new weeds and the soil on your vegetable farm already has an established seed bank. Some of those might be due to Roundup resistant weeds. In Big Ag you should expect to maintain a quality pre-emergent and post emergent herbicide program. That is a cost that will decrease as your no-till program becomes more established. One of the things you can do to speed up this process is to implement cover crops. For those of you who are running cattle, a smartly planned cover crop means mob grazing and that will not only help to cut down on weeds but will cut your cost for winter feeding too. Over time, weed control is helped by surface organic matter – mulch – which shades the seeds so that crop seeds get a head start and then they shade out the weeds. This can become 100% organic or you can continue with herbicide programs.

On smaller market farming operations, you have more control over dealing with weeds before they emerge. Occultation helps a great deal with weed control, but that is a process that is more difficult to manage and too costly for larger operations.

Management – You could expect a drop in yield for the first two years. You might be surprised with a larger yield. Much of that is dependent upon weather and crop management. Start with good recordkeeping and you might need a scheduling software app to help. Especially with market farming an app helps with crop management, planning and scheduling. You will also want to look at weed patterns – what is emerging and when. This is perhaps one of the biggest issues when switching from tiller, plow or disc to no-till. These are all changes that are going to impact both disc and no-till farming. They key really is recordkeeping. You want to focus on keeping track of things like weather and crop success and failure. Recordkeeping also helps with understanding seed selection. There is no reason to change what you plant or the seeds. There isn’t a disc type seed or a no-till seed. In both situations you want seeds with vigor – Good spring growth and root development. The factors that affect seed growth and yield are weather, soil quality, and water. Test plots help you determine what works on your land and what does not. All of this boils down to good recordkeeping, both for marketing farming and Big Ag.

Trust in what you do and what occurs. If there is a problem, understand it, solve it, and learn from it. The real benefits of no-till show up from year three onward. It will take that long for the land to transition, and from year three those benefits increase. The better you manage your crops the better the outcomes should be. Think of recordkeeping as data collection and the better your data the better the answers it can provide.

You will have to set up the land as you make this transition. Part of what that means is fertilizer. A plowed acre is missing much of the biota that would convert crop residue to usable nutrients for the next crop. The soil tends to be denser because it is missing the organic matter that eventually breaks down into soil.  These are a few of the challenges that you face in the first year. To overcome this requires good crop management.

Seed Selection – We touched on this a bit and you hear a lot about seed selection in no-till. Most of it is bunk – marketing from seed sellers. Grow test plots and go with what your farm proves. Never mind about the nay-sayers and those people who tried no-till once and never looked for solutions to the problems of transition.

A disc managed farm has relied on artificial inputs to help make up for the lag that mother earth has. Through better management of the crops you plant you gain a sustainable base from which to grow your farm. This process changes both the farmer and the land. What emerges can be quite remarkable.

David Stillwell organic gardener





About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. He specializes in hymenoptera – bees, wasps, and ants, and the study of cecidology – Plant galls. He has a fondness for recognizing natural circles and energy webs that exist in nature — those interconnected natural systems such as food webs. He is a native of California and an advocate for conservation, locally grown, and farmer’s markets.