Traditionally, people are used to growing crops first by tilling the soil through digging, stirring and turning it over. Through tilling, the soil is turned over to a certain depth, thereby killing unwanted plants and burying mulch, leaving behind barren soil. However, some farmers have chosen not to till their land before planting, which plainly explains the concept of no-tillage farming.
Simply put, no-till farming is the agricultural practice of planting crops without tilling the soil. Also known as zero tillage farming, it was popularised, especially in the United States after World War II, and is now practiced all over the world. Furthermore, tilling the soil has been known to have several disadvantages, giving rise and popularity to the practice that does not involve tilling, thereby contributing to the concept of no-till farming. This article talks more about no-tillage farming.
How No-Till Farming Works?
1. The farm or soil does not have to be tilled
The residue from the previous harvest is left on top of the field for the next planting season. The reason for this is to preserve the fertile soil, which may be completely lost in the next 150 years if farmers continue to till the soil and use tilling practices that do not build and restore soil organic matter.
In most cases, the soil is not tilled at all in no-tillage farming and all that has to be done is spread the harvest’s residue on the field and await the planting season. The soil will be left unharmed by the weather and useful soil microorganism will find a place to thrive in, thereby making it possible for the soil structure to stay intact.
2. Seeds are planted through the remains of residue crops such as green cover crops. Alternatively, V-slot or seed furrows are drilled
No-tillage planting often involves the planting of green cover crops, which cover the fields awaiting the main crop to be planted. For this reason, seeds are planted through the remains of such residue crops or a V-slot or seed furrows are drilled.
Seeds are then placed and the furrows are closed. The furrows have to be at an appropriate depth for higher yields and successful germination of the seeds.
3. The residue from the previous harvest are spread on the farm
To help protect the soil from being damaged by the sun, or frost, or other activities on the farm, residue from the previous harvest are spread on the farm.
The residue should be evenly distributed in the fields while harvesting the crops to manage the erosion of the soil and allow for an even breakdown of nutrients and other organic matter. The residue can also act as fertilizer and this eliminates the need to add any more when planting.
4. Equipment use is minimized
Any equipment for use in non-tillage farming has to be thoroughly planned and thought out. In other words, before buying any equipment suitable for no-till farming, it has to be planned first. It requires a strategy and a plan of knowing, for example, if the crop to be planted the following year such as cash crop will be turned into green cover.
This will determine the right tools to be used. It also requires planning of whether drilling will be used during planting or if the seeds will be broadcasted. Also, since operations and ways of planting, maintaining the crops, and harvesting may change over time, it is often fundamental to establish only the most appropriate or ideal equipment.
5. Watering may not be necessary
No-tillage farming do not necessarily need the watering of your crops as the residue spread on the field protects the water in the soil from evaporating. It also holds more water from the last time the field received water or rains.
Pros of No-Till Farming
1. It Saves Time and Money For a Farmer
Where a farmer chooses to use no-till farming, they skip the ploughing step each year. It means they will not endure labor or fuel costs associated with ploughing. Where the farmer has massive lands, they tend to save even more.
2. It Improves the Soil Structure
Tilling disrupts the natural structure of the soil, especially if it is done repeatedly. The disruption releases some carbon, which is essential for the growth and development of soil organisms.
For this reason, no-till farming ensures these organisms thrive, the soil becomes better and overall, it has the nutrients and water necessary for growing crops.
3. It Reduces the Amount of Water Needed to Grow Crops
In no-till farming, all the crop residues are left on the surface of the field, rather than being ploughed under, to help form additional soil components. These organic materials absorb or help the field absorb water more easily, reduces evaporation, and it also helps limit the amount of runoff that occurs.
It is an amazing form of farming in areas that experience droughts or long periods before receiving rains, and farmers will achieve their full yields of harvest despite the moisture challenges
4. Beneficial Microbes and Insects Increase
No-till farming sees an increase in soil health and an increase in the yields. This is because the method of farming results in an increase in soil microbes that lead to a healthier network of food production that supports a wide variety of soil micro-organisms and insects.
5. The Cost of the Equipment is Similar to That of Other Farm Expenses
When going into the no-tilling farming business, you have to invest in equipment, which can be a bit expensive. However, such costs are comparable to what traditional items for field management cost, over a period of about 10 years.
You might not have to buy more equipment for no-till farming, while for conventional farming, you will be ploughing and using other expenses, which will be comparable over about a decade.
6. It Helps Prevent Soil Erosion
Ploughing loosens the top-soil and makes it lose moisture as well as vulnerable to winds that blow it away. If floods or heavy rains fall on the land at such a time, they could erode a lot of the soil.
No-till farming leaves residue after a harvest that protects the soil from being eroded away. Also, it leads to fewer issues with frost, better stability for water absorption, and any loss of soil can be replaced easily over time.
7. It is Slowly Gaining Momentum
Although the number of farmers practicing the farming method are not many, it is slowly gaining momentum. Also, as a result, more resources are being devoted to advancing the farming method, and it is proving to easier for newbies to join the movement.
8. It Fits in the Agenda of Combating Climate Change
No-tillage farming can actually fit in well in the climate change agenda as it plays a significant role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by minimizing soil disturbance.
Soil acts as a natural store of carbon that is essential in the form of organic materials. When soil is ploughed, it exposes the carbon components to oxygen in the atmosphere in turn reacting to form carbon dioxide that becomes part of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming.
9. It reduces Soil Compaction
Whenever one tills, it requires the use of equipment, which will compact some soil when it touches the soil’s surface, leading to the formation of hardpans. The equipment will be heavy and press down water and air that might be present in the soil pockets.
Soil pockets are vital as they allow the free movement of water, crop roots and soil organisms. No-till technology significantly reduces the amount of equipment used, and as such, reduces soil compaction or hardpan formation.
Cons of No-Till Farming
1. Initial Costs of No-till Equipment are High
For going with the option of tilling the land, one has to invest in no-till equipment and parts, which can deter one from continuing with no-till farming. Generally, although the farmer can recoup the money invested through higher crop yields, the farmer may eventually spend more on labor and the equipment.
The farmer will also have to sell the old tillage equipment and downsize or eliminate tractors that are no longer needed or if newer technologies come up. If cropping is diversified, seeding equipment has to be made smaller or narrower and has to be timely.
2. Formation of Gullies
Due to no-tilling for a long time, gullies can potentially deeper every year. This is because the field is not being continually smoothed with tillage, and thus hiding how much erosion really occurs. To help solve this, it is recommended to use underground tile lines, grass waterways, and cover crops, which help intercept and carry the runoff from the field.
Also, there is a need to maintain high amounts of mulch cover to reduce the runoff and the tendency of gully formation. Also, low-pressure radial tires, tracks and changing up the traffic patterns across the field, help reduce the tendency to form gullies or rills.
3. Increased Use of Chemicals
No-till farming might actually help curb fast-growing weeds. However, most types of weeds continue to grow in no-till farms and require the use of herbicides to be eliminated.
The continued use of such chemicals might be disastrous to the soil, air and surrounding water bodies, not to mention how such chemicals will eventually affect animals and humans who feed on them. Luckily, leaving weed seeds on the surface of the soil where they can be eaten by insects, mice and birds, or simply rot away, could help kill the weeds.
4. The Learning Curve For no-till Farming is Still Down
Most people do not want to learn new techniques in farming, especially no-till farming. The majority of people prefer to stick to conventional tillage and see no-till farming as wrong or impractical.
Although there are new sources, resources and products being developed, almost daily, regarding no-till farming, its popularity is still low. No-till farming, therefore, requires more skilled management and education so that it gains more popularity and is adopted by more farmers and regions.
5. The Risk of Carrying Over Diseases
After harvest, the land is left alone, where weeds take over. Before the harvest, the crops suffer through a lot, including these weeds, as well as other crop diseases. The diseases tend to die off after harvest and can be controlled after tilling. Without tilling, there is the risk of carrying over these plant diseases when the crop residue is not incorporated into the soil after harvest.
As such, the land will act as a host for diseases and will infect subsequent crops. To combat this, farmers can also choose to rotate crops and plant those not susceptible to these diseases. Vegetation placed on top of the fields could also make a great home for pests and hide weeds from sight
6. It Takes Time to Reap Benefits
In some areas, it can take quite some time before reaping the benefits of no-till farming. For instance, if a farm has not been farmed for decades, it will take quite a while to see some gains in yields after just one season.
No-till farming requires a lot of patience so that the soil regains structure and this cannot happen overnight or over one season of planting.
7. Some Soil Types Might Not Support it
Where a farmer has used conventional tilling methods for long, the soil base becomes incredibly compact and it means that you will have to plant other crops that reduce the impact of the issues as you start no-tilling. Soils with heavy clay and other types, as well, may not be able to benefit from such a method of farming, even with a change in growth patterns.
For this reason, those farmers who are interested in joining no-till farming have to consult with local experts to see if their fields can support the farming method and subsequent crops.
8. The Fields Cannot be Used For Other Purposes
Traditionally, fields have been used to grow crops and later for grazing or bailing. When a farmer chooses to use the no-tilling farming method, they cannot utilize their fields for livestock benefits or creating grass crops.
The reason for this is because the residues from previous seasons of farming have to be used in the fields, by being left uniformly on the field. Where a farm has limited land resources, or if the residues are taken of the fields, the method of farming will not be helpful to the farmer.