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Serving: IN
John Deere sprayer in cornfield
BETTER RESULTS: More knowledge about soil health plus improved technology and equipment, like this high-clearance sprayer, help no-tillers produce top yields today.

Give reduced tillage another try

Salute Soil Health: Here are suggestions for how to make no-till work this time.

Many farmers gave no-till a try in the late ’80s or early ’90s. Unfortunately, it didn’t go well for most. They were told to stop tilling and plant no-till. If they did, good things would happen. For some farmers, this worked well enough and they stuck with it. 

However, for many it was a struggle from the get-go, and they often returned to some sort of reduced-tillage system. Often, residue on the soil surface, especially corn residue, kept the soil cold and wet, making planting a challenge. 

If this sounds familiar, your crops, soil and you likely struggled to make it past the first three to five years. If we only knew then what we think we know now, we would have told you how important soil biology is. Plus, we would have emphasized the need to stick with it.

Realistic attitude

It’s important to understand that this is a systems-oriented process. There are no silver bullets. It will take time and patience. A variety of transitions must happen when making the switch to high-residue planting systems. These transition areas include soil biology, crop residue, tillage and your mindset. 

Soil biology. Earthworms and other biological composters must be ready to deal with the residue that no-till leaves on the soil surface. This is where cover crops or more crops in rotation are crucial because they improve and increase biology. Manure and compost applied at correct rates, and reduced soil disturbance can also give soil biology a boost. Cover crops, along with less tillage, will have a duplicative positive impact.

Crop residue. The golden rule is to spread residue uniformly across the soil surface. Evenly spreading residue allows all cropping systems to work better. That’s why successful high-residue planting systems begin at harvest. Benefits of evenly spread residue include improved crop emergence, less nutrient tie-up in strips across the field, more even weed seed distribution, and reduced water and wind erosion.  At planting time, 30 to 70 pounds of nitrogen per acre helps counterbalance all the carbon in higher-residue systems.

Tillage. To speed up the transition to reduced tillage, pick out one tillage pass that is no longer needed. The goal should be not to prepare a perfect seedbed in the fall or early spring, as that will almost always require at least one more “freshening” tillage pass. 

Most tillage equipment has a variety of settings. Use them. For example, change the gang angle from 6 degrees to 3 degrees. You will disturb less soil and bury less residue. Running implements shallower or slowing down has a similar effect. Make one tweak every fall or spring. Reducing tillage reduces fuel, equipment and labor costs.

Mindset. You must want to make this system work and stick with it. A full, all-in commitment will help. Have you ever given up on corn or soybeans after a difficult year? Of course not. If cover crops didn’t work one season, determine why and overcome that hurdle the next time. Making these changes will take time and patience.

Patience is needed as your soils, cropping system and mindset go through the various transitions. 

Bailey is the state conservation agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.

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