Welcome to the third part of our series addressing the benefits of No-till Farming. In the early part of the series, we went over the physical changes of the land moving from tilled farming to no-till. We also looked at the ways the land and the farmer change during and after the switch. In this installment, we look at the deeper benefits of no-till and address some pitfalls in thinking about no-till.
On the farm, the deeper benefits of no-till means a proactive approach to building and maintaining soil. That benefit becomes a sustainable process by which a farm can continue to produce healthy and viable crops for generations.
The physical process begins with soil that is less compact – fluffier. Then two things happen. First, the moisture levels rise in the soil column and aggregates near the surface hold a higher moisture content. That action signals the second event which is the return of soil biota. Small organisms need moist soil to function, and tilling tends to dry out the soil causing a loss of soil biota.
These are natural systems that impact each other. When balanced they enhance. However, take one away and the others tend to collapse. This is where the relationship between the farmer and the land becomes real. As a steward, it is important to monitor these types of systems.
Complaints about No-Till
Drive down the road and look at abandoned fields. They are full of things growing on their own. A lot of farmers try no-till for a year and then abandon it because the yield was not what they thought it should be. Some never tried because they heard they would have to buy all new seed stock. When it comes to no-till there are many complaints. I find many of those stem from a misplaced relationship in growing. Many farmers have a relationship with their crop but not necessarily with the land – Crop focus. Got a problem? Add more inputs. That equation is not sustainable. The farther one goes down that row the higher the costs become and that means that on the end consumer level the prices have to go up.
Switching from tilling to no-till is a big change. In the first few years, you should be able to produce about the same amount, maybe a little less in the first year. You will also have to blend both till methods and no-till methods in the first couple of years. For example, increasing the use of inputs such as nitrogen. This is as much about dialing in the farmer as it is the crops. For many farmers, switching to no-till is not about going back to the “old ways.” Instead it is about learning a new way of farming.
The benefits of no-till really begin to emerge after the third year. That is because the relationship between the farmer and the land has grown. Also, during that time, the natural systems begin to return to a state where they are working together. This means the soil organics are causing the soil to be fluffier. It also means that soil biota is returning and thriving. This is the result of crop residue that is beginning to enhance soil nutrition. Also, the water level has risen in the soil column. Trying no-till for a year and giving up is wasting time and resources. In most situations, the seed stock you’ve been using should be fine.
What also changes is the skill set of the farmers. This is evident in the differences seen in weed emergence from till to no-till. Farmers are also seeing the benefits of improved soil nutrition and how water is better managed because of the organic material in the soil. And, they are seeing there is a decrease in heavy work, that they need fewer inputs, that weeds are naturally controlled, and that they have better accesses to fields earlier in the spring.
These are all benefits that are sustainable but they do not happen overnight. No-till is a sustainable way to improve soil health and that leads to improved crop health, better yields, and protection for the very resource that enables us to farm – the land.
Problems with Tilling
There are problems with tilling. There appear to be insects that are resistant to GMO crops. Weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. Consumers are starting to show resistance to the use of both GMOs and non-organic crops by consumers. And there has been an increase at the end-consumer level for organic produce and meats.
Sustainable growing is leaning towards no-till. The benefits are just too good to ignore and as technology increases, we are likely to see a larger input from end consumers – one that is big enough to change farming.
About: David Stillwell is an organic gardener, entomologist, writer and student. David 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.