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Healthy Soil and Profits from Low-TillHealthy Soil and Profits from Low-Till

Think Different: How to value added soil moisture?In a “typical” drought or extended summer dry period, conservation tillage practices provide 5-8 in. additional moisture from higher soil organic matter, increased moisture-holding capacity, less soil compaction, better soil structure, reduced evapotranspiration and deeper roots, according to the Conservation Technology Information Center. “This results in higher yields, assuming everything else is done correctly,” says CTIC Director Karen Scanlon.

Susan Winsor

August 29, 2012

10 Min Read

Strip-till saved Ed Hegland so much fuel that his fuel supplier thought he’d switched suppliers, says the Appleton, Minn., grower. “The switch from full-width tillage cut our fuel use roughly in half,” he says.

A Corn & Soybean Digest review of academic studies and various growers’ conservation-tillage transitions reveals significant fuel, labor and equipment cost savings. Added to the long-term benefits of better soil health and moisture management makes reduced tillage a winning financial and agronomic combination.

The Rulon Family, Arcadia, Ind., has no-tilled continually for 21 years. The spreadsheet wizards calculate a 12% cost savings over conventional tillage corn in their no-till continuous-corn operation ($3.81 per bu. no-till corn cost of production vs. $4.34 per bu. conventional tillage). They have documented every penny of their long-term no-till costs compared to conventional tillage. (Details at http://bit.ly/xk9K1I.)

A University of Illinois comparison of strip-till costs and “typical-till” found a 23% savings in combined tractor and implement overhead, fuel and labor costs, says Illinois Ag Economist Gary Schnitkey. The “typical-till” system uses a field cultivator for a secondary tillage pass before planting, and fields are chisel-plowed after corn harvest.)


35% fewer gallons

The Illinois strip- and no-till operations studied saved 35% in fuel gallons used over the typical-till (2.4 gal. per acre vs. 3.7 gal. per acre). In 2006, University of Illinois results indicated that the two low-till systems have about $19.05 per acre fewer costs and 1-2 gal. less fuel per acre use than the typical-till or deep-till systems. (For details please seehttp://bit.ly/AltTill). (Total 2012 costs average $62.88 per acre for strip-till and no-till and $49.06 per acre for no-till, while typical-till was $81.93 per acre.)

A 2011 Kansas State University comparison of 390 mixed tillage and 112 no-till operations in central Kansas found a 14-27% reduction in gas, fuel and oil costs among Kansas no-till farms compared to mixed-tillage operations. In addition, labor expense per acre was 12-23% lower for no-till farms than for mixed-tillage operations. In a longer-term study, no-till farms had a higher cost efficiency, lower per-unit costs, better labor- and capital-use efficiency and a higher operating profit margin ratio, according to study author Michael Langemeier, now with Purdue University. (See http://bit.ly/Pnyi7O).

For no-tiller Cameron Mills, Walton, Ind., fuel savings are as high as 40% over conventional tillage. “We’re down to a planter pass and a combine pass; it’s a no-brainer,” he says. He spends $23 per acre on cover crop seed and aerial application. (Mills is retrofitting his bean planter with an air seeder for double duty to blow crimson clover, winter peas, radishes and rye mixed cover-crop seed.)


Higher yields, less water

Less tillage has enabled Jacobs Farms farmer Ryan Speer, Halstead, Kan., to get by with two 200-hp. tractors. It has also reduced herbicide use, strengthened yields and improved erosion control.

Soybean yields have increased by 15-20% following a cover crop compared to straight no-till beans without cover crops. Cover crops join the rotation whenever the weather allows. The rotation is two years corn, soybeans, double-crop wheat, double-crop beans, then back to two years of corn (five crops in four years with multiple cover crops between cash crops). Rye and radishes always follow the second-year corn before beans, Speer says.

Although no-till is a no-brainer on the 4,000-acre High Plains dryland and irrigated operation, the certified crop advisor is also in demand as a speaker on cover crops.

“I used to think that cover crops were just one more chore we did not need until our wheat crop froze in 2007 on a particularly terrible sandy field,” Speer says. “We replanted into freeze-killed residue and had a 25-bu. soybean yield increase from that thick vegetation using 35% less irrigation water and only one glyphosate spray instead of three. The groundcover crowded out the weeds. Now, the cereal-rye, radishes and other cover-crop mixes retain our spring rains through the dry summer season and control evaporation, sustaining our soybeans longer. Our sandy soils can only hold 1-1.25 in. moisture per foot of soil profile, so the cover crops store spring rains through the summer for us while reducing evaporation.”

Two years of extensive replicated strip trials have fine-tuned cover crop mixtures; often rye and radish mixes before soybeans. “The cover crops also definitely help reduce chemical costs by crowding out the weeds, too.”


Better soils

Conservation tillage’s improved soil structure and permeability made the difference in many drought-stricken areas, says No-till on the Plains Director Brian Lindley. “In many areas, the only place where there was a crop to harvest was where they had cover crops that banked soil moisture.” He recorded soil temperatures of 140-153° F without surface residue, compared to soil temps of 119° underneath residue in a recent 1,800-mile High Plains summer crop tour. He saw 41° differences between bare soil and residue-covered soil near Pierre, S.D.

In some cases, yield boosts lag cover crops by two years. For example Speer had a 22-bu. per acre increase on dryland corn two years following a sunn hemp cover crop between stacked wheat crops. “The corn yield increase corresponded perfectly to where the cover crop was planted two years earlier,” Speer says.

It is the improved water and nutrient cycle, combined with reduced evaporation. And you cannot discount the role of improved roots’ beneficial physiology.

South Dakota State University Research Farm Manager Dwayne Beck explains, “It is not about whether you till or not; it is about how efficiently you use and cycle nutrients and rainfall – how much sunlight is harvested and turned into something productive and how much falls on bare ground?

At the Dakota Lakes Research Farm (Pierre, S.D.), “We make the most money on fields with diverse and unpredictable rotations,” Beck says. “Corn-corn-soybean-wheat/cover crop-wheat and corn-corn-soybean-wheat/cover crop trump both continuous corn and corn-soybean for yields, profitability and peace of mind in terms of the threat of developing biotype resistance.”

In northwest Indiana, 38-year no-till veteran Scott Fritz appreciates reduced equipment and maintenance expense. He likes focusing solely on his planter and combine to maintain on his 2,500-acre no-till corn-bean operation. “One Deere no-till planter with residue managers, Keaton seed firmers, Martin spading-closing wheels and a chain behind is cheaper to own and maintain than plows, disks, chisel plows and a second tractor,” he says. Every winter he “turns nearly every bolt on that planter making it as good as it can be instead of worrying about a shed full of equipment,” he says.

“And how do you put a price on improving droughty, sandy soil known for wind erosion, wet spring soils and summer droughts? A soil tensiometer goes all the way into the soil anywhere on the farm at any time of year. You can’t do that on a lot of tilled fields.”


Benefits in 2-5 years

Over 38 years, Fritz has converted new farms to “true no-till,” and says it takes two to five years to loosen up soils, reduce compaction and activate microorganisms and earthworms to fully realize no-till’s agronomic benefits. “One of my no-till rules is never to cut corners.”

On Hegland’s western Minnesota strip-till operation, reduced tractor power requirements also save him money. “I now have a MF 8680 front-wheel assist and a Deere 8120T tractor, so I don’t need the horsepower of a conventional-tillage operation,” he says. “We also save loads of time and money in fewer trips across the field and reduced and more precise fertilizer use without any yield compromise,” Hegland says of his 2008 move to strip-till on silty loam soils.

Three fewer trips across the field save western Minnesota grower Tim Koosmann roughly $30 per acre, compared to conventional tillage, he says. He switched to strip-till continuous corn three years ago after ridge-tilling rotated corn for 30 years. Saving money is secondary to having the best seedbed for continuous-corn yields, he says.

On heavier soils like Hegland’s and Koosmann’s, strip-till can overcome the hurdles of reduced tillage in corn, says Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Iowa State University professor of soil management. “But for soybeans, it does not pay to do any kind of tillage, regardless of soil type,” he says of 10 years’ research across eight locations and many soil types.

“Profitable conservation tillage comes down to how much land you can farm by spreading out the planting and harvesting workload, and not spending resources on tillage,” says Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension engineer who’s worked with no-till for 34 years. “Parking the tillage tools and extending the planting and harvest seasons doubles or triples the number of acres one farmer can farm with the same equipment.” For example, he knows a central South Dakota farmer who seeds over 8,500 acres of eight different crops and about 3,000-5,000 acres of cover crops each year using one tractor, a planter, an air seeder, one combine and two operators. “The harvest season for eight different crops is several months long. On a per-acre basis, that’s not much for equipment and labor,” Jasa says.



The bottom line on no-till

Ken Rulon, Arcadia, Ind., long-term no-tiller and spreadsheet whiz, calculates a 12% cost savings (corn) over conventional tillage in his family’s long-term no-till operation ($3.81 per bu. no-till cost of production vs. $4.34 per bu. conventional tillage). He’s recently updated the analysis using 2013 costs that reveal the savings over conventional tillage, including:

  • A 19.1% savings on all equipment costs ($24.50 per acre) in no-till versus conventional tillage.

  • A 71% savings in fungicide/insecticide costs ($16.02 per acre savings) due to more effective disease control on the no-till ground from beneficial insects.

  • A 35-lb. per acre reduction in total actual N applied (178 lbs. per acre no-till vs. 213 lbs. per acre conventional because no-till’s higher soil organic matter increases N availability.

  • A $7 per acre cover-crop cost ($14/every other year in rotation).

  • A $2 per acre increased cost for precision equipment for planting and anhydrous ammonia.

  • A $20 per acre NRCS water-quality incentive payment for no-till.


These savings calculations are based on:

  • $5/bu. corn & $12/bu. soybeans.

  • Corn yield of 185 bu. (no yield drag in long-term no-till).

  • Bean yield of 58 bu. (a 3-bu. soybean yield boost in no-till (50-50 corn/bean rotation)).

The 5,600-acre Rulon central-Indiana family farm has been 100% no-till for 21 years and was the 2011 national Conservation Legacy award winner. For details on the operation, please see http://bit.ly/CSDRulon or www.rulonenterprises.com.


Wisdom from 34-year NT veteran

Paul Jasa, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension engineer, is as practical and scientific as they come. His advice: “The key is that the resources (labor, fuel, equipment, etc.) producers formerly spent on tillage can now be spent on planting, spraying, fertilizing and harvesting more crops. Some who’ve switched to no-till have let hired help go and/or sold off large tractors because they don’t need them anymore for tillage. Others can now farm many more acres with the existing help and tractors, (either running two shifts with one tractor and planter or adding a second planter on the tractor that used to pull the tillage equipment). As they broaden and diversify the crop rotation, they add even more acres as the planting and harvesting windows get much larger. Thus, equipment inventory goes down, the fixed costs get spread across more acres, and the tillage costs are gone.



2012 Tillage Cost Comparison


This table, with data from University of Illinois, reflects updated 2006 production costs with $3.50/gal. fuel. As such, no-till saves 23% of variable costs, or $19.05/acre, and 1.3 gal. fuel/acre, over “typical till” in this University of Illinois Extension analysis, provided by Gary Schnitkey, farm management specialist, based on averaged corn and soybean costs. The “typical till” uses a field cultivator secondary tillage before planting and a chisel plow operation after corn harvest. The no-till includes field passes for fertilizer and chemical application, planting and combining; but not tillage. Costs are updated from http://bit.ly/AltTill using

University of Illinois 2012 Machinery cost estimates.




“Typical till”


Corn/bean avg.




Fuel use/acre

2.4 gal./acre

3.7 gal./acre

1.3 gal./acre

Labor cost/acre




Implement overhead




Tractor overhead










About the Author(s)

Susan Winsor

Before joining Corn and Soybean Digest, Susan was an agricultural magazine editor for Miller Publishing, a newspaper reporter for Gannett newspapers and Manager, Marketing Publications for Cenex/Land O’Lakes Ag Services. She graduated from Colorado State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Journalism.

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