There are several elements of life that are critical to human survival. We need to have clean air, access to freshwater resources, and the ability to use farmable soil. The only problem is that we’re losing up to 23 billion tons of the latter item every year because of our farming practices. At this rate, we will be completely devoid of the ability to produce food products from the land in under 150 years.
The hunger crisis could start much sooner than that too. If we have a soil-based problem that adversely impacts our food chain, then all available croplands would become needed to reduce food access issues as much as possible.
One of the most significant contributors to the development of a soil crisis is the tilling of fields that farmers perform during each planting season. The purpose of plowing is to bury crop residue, weeds, and manure so that the soil receives a healthy dose of aeration, but it will impact the health of that land in negative ways over time until it becomes infertile.
No-till farming promises a solution that could fix this problem, but there are several pros and cons to consider.
List of the Pros of No-Till Farming
1. It saves money for the farmer.
If a farmer decides to embrace the idea of no-till farming, then they are skipping the step of plowing their fields each year. That means there are no longer the fuel or labor costs associated with that activity to worry about during the spring planting season. Larger properties could see significant cost savings since this benefit would expand with every acre under management. One pass of tillage can cost up to $21 per acre, depending on the implement used and the cost of labor in the region.
2. There is a reduction in water use needed to grow crops.
When farmers embrace the idea of no-till farming, then all of the crop residues are left on the surface of the field instead of being plowed under to help form additional soil components. The presence of this organic material helps the area to absorb water more readily. This advantage can help to limit the amount of runoff that occurs as well. When the croplands are in a region that tends to see drought more often than not, then it is possible to continue growing a full yield for harvest each year even with the moisture challenges.
3. No-till farming leads to less herbicide runoff.
Since there is less runoff happening on a field where no-till farming occurs, there are fewer issues with herbicide runoff in the surrounding area. This advantage applies to pesticides and fertilizer applications as well. That means there are fewer issues with pollutants getting into the nearby water supplies. It is a process that leads to a healthier environment throughout an entire region if a majority of farmers decide to start using this method of field management to grow crops.
4. Farmers can produce higher yields with no-till farming.
When a region is in a traditionally low-moisture area, then no-till farming can lead to a significantly higher yield for the farmer each year. This advantage applies to the traditional regions where agricultural professions are prominent, like in the U.S. Breadbasket states of Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. It is not unusual for a farmer’s crop yields to rise by as much as 50% when they decide to stop plowing. The additional profits from these yields then help to offset the initial expense of the necessary equipment to start using this method of field management.
5. No-till farming has a supportive community with plenty of resources.
Even though the no-till farming movement is still relatively small when compared to the overall agricultural community, it is growing in popularity. Since it was introduced as a practice in the United States in the late 1970s, no-till farming has grown to the point where about 30% of farms are using this method to produce food for the world to eat. That figure was at just 5% in 1988. That means you’ll have access to an entire community of resources, including mentorship, that can make it easier to convert to this alternative method of farming. We have gone beyond the trial-and-error phase of using this option to produce food.
6. There is an increase in beneficial microbes and insect support.
When there is an increase in soil health experienced in croplands, then the overall support system that Mother Nature provides to the region sees a boost of activity. Most farmers see a significant increase in the number of beneficial insects that help to produce an improved yield, which helps to support other industries in the area as well. There is an improvement in soil microbes too, leading to a healthier network of food production that supports larger wildlife too. Cover crops provide an even more significant boost to this advantage.
7. The cost of no-till equipment is comparable to other farm equipment expenses.
There are several factors that go into the capital expenses of no-till farming when one first begins this process, but it is usually manageable. The cost of most equipment is comparable to what the traditional items are for field management when priced over a decade. If you were managing 2,000 acres of corn or soybeans, then you’d need two drills for planting and a variety of other equipment options that will eventually reach a six-figure investment in the business. The reality of this upgrade is that it tends to be about $10,000 per year over the decade, which makes it easier to incorporate the expense into the farm’s budget.
8. It helps to prevent soil erosion.
When fields receive plowing, then the exposed top-soil begins to lose its moisture. A windy day could see a significant portion of this resource blow away. Should this issue occur, then the area cannot retain moisture readily, which leads to flooding and erosion issues. Thanks to the additional residues left on the field after a harvest, the impact on the land is similar to what a garden experiences when it receives a thick layer of mulch. There are fewer issues with frost, better stability for water adsorption, and less overall loss that must be replaced over time.
List of the Cons of No-Till Farming
1. There are special equipment costs that some farmers must endure.
When farmers decide to use a no-till method of farming, then they must use specialized seeding equipment to make their fields ready for planting. One of the tools that is needed most often is a drill that makes it possible to plant beneath the residues from last season. Depending on the location of the farm, the cost of these materials can easily exceed $100,000. Even though this capital investment usually gets absorbed into the daily operational costs of the farm and will pay for itself through savings from the lack of plowing, it can be a price that some farmers are unable or unwilling to pay.
2. It can make the fields become more susceptible to fungal disease.
Although one of the advantages of no-till farming is that it will help the fields retain moisture, this issue can lead to the disadvantage of fungal growth and mold development around the crops. These issues are kept in-check better with the traditional plowing method. Farmers will need to take proactive steps to limit potential damage by going into the fields to offer aeration without causing the good soil to disappear. This issue can make farming especially difficult in high-moisture regions like the Pacific Northwest in the United States.
3. Farmers need to use more herbicides to support their fields.
Plowing also provides the advantage of disrupting weed growth in the fields where planted crops receiving ongoing management throughout the year. Since they don’t get plowed into the soil for organic support, they grow with greater resiliency as the food or cash crop items do at the same time. That means there is an increase in the use of herbicides and other supportive products throughout the year. There might be fewer issues with pollutants around the treated fields, but this disadvantage also creates a greater reliance on genetically-modified crops that are resistant to herbicides to produce a profitable yield.
4. It can take a long time for the rewards of no-till farming to appear.
The quality of your soil will drive the results that farmers receive from no-till farming. If the land was plowed for more than a century, then it can take 15-20 years before a full recovery can occur when using this method. That means your yields may not rise to the levels where the new equipment can pay for itself right away. There are gains that occur whenever this conversion occurs, but patience is a necessary component of transitioning to this method of food production. You must stick with it on a full-time basis to eventually reach the results you want – and there is no 100% guarantee that you’ll reach a higher level of profitability.
It may be 36-48 months of no-till farming before you begin to see any results at all. That’s why this method must take a long-term view to become profitable. With the investments and work required to make a transition, some farmers could see a lot of work ahead of them to improve their fields.
5. Farmers must continue to adapt to the conditions of their field.
When a farmer decides to embrace the idea of no-till farming, then it is a lifetime of learning that they’re embracing. Although it is easier today to use these methods than it was 40 years ago, you’re never really finished with the educational process. There are plenty of dos and don’ts that occur over time based on the conditions of your field or the precipitation patterns that happen over the year that require ongoing management. Some farmers think that they’ll just stop plowing and that’s the only step necessary.
The reality of no-till farming is that it is a fairly significant process that required continued adaptation to be a successful experience.
6. Some soil types do not benefit from no-till farming.
If a farmer has used the traditional tilling method for years to produce the same crops each season, then the soil base will become incredibly compact. The best way to reduce the impact of this issue as you start no-till farming is to produce a crop that breaks up the compaction in the field. One of the best options is tillage radish, which is Daikon radish because it adds organic matter while breaking up the plow pans. Soils with heavy clay and other types may not benefit from this method even with a change in growing emphasis, so farmers interesting in the no-till method may want to consult with local experts to see what benefits are possible for their fields.
7. The fields cannot be used for multiple purposes.
It is not unusual, especially in the U.S. Midwest, to use the fields in fall for grazing or bailing efforts. If a farmer decides to use a no-till method for growing crops, then they cannot use their land for livestock benefits or creating grass crops. The residues from the previous seasons are most beneficial when they are left uniformly on the field instead of using the traditional method of cultivated rows. If a farm has limited land resources, then this method of food production may not be helpful to their bottom line.
8. Some crop residues can transfer disease to the next yield.
One of the most significant risks of no-till farming is that disease transmission is possible. Since the residues from the previous season don’t receive incorporation into the soil after the harvesting process, then an infected yield can damage the growth that occurs in the next season. This issue is the primary reason why most no-till experts recommend that farmers plant a different crop each year.
Rotation eliminates many of the problems with disease development, but it can also provide an adverse impact on the income of farms who rely on monoculture to survive.
When we review the pros and cons of no-till farming, it is clear to see that the expense of this effort is worthwhile. We can manage some of the investment costs of this method with higher food pricing or taxpayer subsidies so that farmers receive encouragement to save their soil. It will be a challenge to convert to new methods after thousands of years of plowing, but the steps we take today can ensure that we can continue to produce food for tomorrow’s generations.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.