Humans have been plowing the soil for thousands of years as the standard cultivation practice for most farmers on our planet. The purpose of tilling the soil is to bury crop residues, manure, and weeds, as well as aerating and warming the soil. However, continually tilling the soil can do great damage to the soil’s structure and ecology, and can eventually lead to soil infertility.
No-tillage farming is a farming practice where the soil is minimally disturbed from planting to harvest. During the planting process, holes are drilled into the soil where the seed will be planted and then covered up. This method leaves ground surface in tact, along with the residues from the previous crop.
Because of the many advantages of no-tillage farming methods, no-till cultivation has been increasing over the last several decades. However, although there are a number of advantages to no-tillage farming, there are disadvantages to this farming method as well.
Pros of no-tillage farming
This helps to maintain the long-term productivity of the land. Herbicide and other chemical runoff is also significantly reduced by no-tillage farming compared to tillage farming, and no-tillage farmers do not lose precious fertile topsoil, so they don’t need to add as many fertilizers to their fields as a tillage farmer does.
- Farmers save money and increase their profits
Farmers no longer have to pay for the labor and the fuel that would otherwise be required for plowing.
- Reduced fuel and equipment operation
Because farmers practicing no-till farming do not have to run their equipment as often, they are reducing dust in the atmosphere and emissions from the equipment, and are releasing less carbon from the soil into the atmosphere compared to tillage agricultural methods. The farming equipment also tends to last longer because it is used less often.
- Water Conservation
Because no-tillage farming leaves crop residues on the land, this farming method helps to reduce the evaporation of soil moisture, absorbs more water, and reduces runoff. This increases the amount of infiltration of irrigation and rainwater into the soil, which is extremely beneficial for the growth of crop plants. This is of great benefit to farmers growing crops in drought-prone regions.
- Increases in Crop Yields
As soil fertility is built and maintained, and as water is conserved within the soil, no-till farming helps to increase crop yields. However, these benefits of increased yield may take many years, or even decades, to be realized when a transition from tillage to no-till farming occurs.
- Increases in beneficial insects and soil microbes
As the soil fertility increases, crop residue remains, and the overall soil ecology gets healthier and healthier with significantly reduced disturbance, there is typically an increase in beneficial insects and soil microbes in the soil. This increased level of beneficial insects and soil microbes supports the base of a healthy food web that can support a wide array of wildlife. When cover crops are used, they also help to increase these benefits even more.
- High Resource Availability
There are now many resources and programs available to farmers who wish to transition and move forward with no-tillage farming.
Cons of no-tillage farming
- Special Machinery is Required
No-tillage farming may require special machinery such as a “no-till drill” to drill through crop residue. Such equipment can cost more than $100,000[sc:1].
- Not Appropriate for Every Soil Type
No-tillage farming may not be successful in certain types of soil. Farmers should do research to determine if no-till farming is appropriate for local soil and climate conditions[sc:2].
- Increase in Herbicide Use
High amounts of herbicides may be used to control weeds that grow in cultivated no-tillage acreage.
- No Baling or Heavy Grazing
In order to reap the benefits of no-tillage farming, the crop residues that remain cannot be baled or grazed heavily by livestock. Crop residues are most beneficial when they are left uniformly on the field instead of being cultivated in rows[sc:2].
- Nitrogen-based fertilizers may still be needed
Depending on the condition of the crop residue, there may be a need for additional fertilizer applications[sc:2].
- Increase Risk of Fungal Diseases
Increased moisture levels in the soil may lead to an increased risk of fungal crop diseases[sc:1].
- Increased Herbicide Application
With no-tillage farming, there may be an increase in weed growth that leads many farmers to increase their application of herbicide on their crops. Unfortunately in many cases, this has led to an increase in use of herbicide-resistant GMO crops[sc:1].
- Involves more management
The process of no-tillage farming can involve more intensive management of crops and soil than traditional tillage farming[sc:1].