What is No-Till?

Corn StalksI recently posted this picture of amassed corn stalk residue on my The Farmer’s Life facebook page with the description “Water has caused crop residue to accumulate in some areas creating a thick mat. In our no-till fields. We may have to burn a few of these to assist the planter in placing seed correctly.”  The first comment on the photo resulted in the post you are reading right now.  That comment read “What’s a no till field? Why would you not till a field?”  A great question.  There are many kinds of tillage including not tilling at all.

What is No-Till?

Yetter Sharktooth

What we call trash wheels are mounted on the front of our planter (folded for transport in this picture). These units are designed to move residue away from the seed furrow before seed is placed. Crop residue can impede germination. All we want these units to do is sweep residue out of a narrow path. We don’t want them adjusted too low where they will make a trench in the soil.

No-till is just what is sounds like.  A true no-till system avoids disturbing the soil with tools like chisel plows, field cultivators, disks, and plows.  Not all of our acres are no-till, but we have been doing less tillage as of late including putting more acres into no-till.  I’m 32 years old and I’ve never actually ran a moldboard plow over a field aside from the single acre we took turns playing on a few years ago in our 1956 John Deere 70 Diesel and three-bottom plow.  I might lose some farmer points here, but I don’t even know how to plow a field properly.  Lack of experience I guess.  A plow could be considered the polar opposite of no-till.  A plow flips over the top layer of soil incorporating nearly all residue into the soil.  No-till relies on natural processes to break down residue from the previous crop.



  • Reducing fuel, labor, and equipment costs are the most quantifiable benefits of not doing any tillage.  Our current tillage system normally includes a fall chisel plow pass to manage residue followed by a pass, or two, with a field cultivator to prepare a seed bed for planting.  This system would be called minimum or conservation tillage by some, but right off the bat a no-till plan cuts at least two trips across our ground out of our budget.  If we quit doing tillage over our whole farm we’re looking at removing a couple of gallons per acre of fuel from our expenses.  Take the price of diesel today times our just over 2,000 acres of farmland and you’ll get a fairly substantial number.  That’s also fewer hours on a tractor meaning more value at trade-in time, and less wear and tear on tillage tools.  In fact I believe if we went 100% dedicated no-till we could sell off all our tillage tools and downsize one tractor from our lineup.   We’ve recently purchased a John Deere 2623VT vertical tillage tool, but let’s keep things simple for now.
  • Improved soil structure is another big benefit.  Tillage disrupts the natural structure of soil and releases some of the carbon soil organisms thrive on.  Soil biology plays an important role in providing crops with the water and nutrients they need.
  • Potential for erosion can be reduced by leaving more residue on the surface in the months when there are no crops growing.  Residue allows for rainwater and snow melt to infiltrate the soil rather than causing surface run off that will carry away topsoil and nutrients.  Of course if enough rains falls on already saturated soils you’ll have some runoff no matter what.  We are experiencing those conditions right now.
  • Reducing soil compaction is a great benefit.  Soil gets compacted any time equipment drives over the surface.  The weight of farm equipment compacts the air and water pockets present in soil that allow for the movement of water, crop roots, and soil organisms.  Combines and grain carts are the worst offenders because they are very heavy.  Since no-till reduces the amount of equipment a field sees the threat of compaction is reduced.  Compaction cannot be avoided completely, but it can be managed by limiting field traffic to certain areas.  Subsoilers and cover crops can also correct compaction issues.
Oats and Tillage Radish Cover Crop

The effect of compaction from our combine can clearly been seen in our oat and radish cover crop that has winter-killed. The cover crop was aerial applied before harvest and actually grew best where the combine tires pushed the seeds into the soil. Cover crop radishes are bred to break up compacted soil.


  • With no-till a farmer has lost the ability to mechanically control weeds through tillage.  Biotechnology has been given some credit for increasing no-till acres because technologies like Roundup Ready have made weed control by herbicide very effective both in performance and cost.  Herbicides with residual action can help stem weed growth post-plant.  Row crop cultivators are nearly a tool of the past for conventional farmers.  We used to go back into our fields during the growing season and pull a cultivator between the rows in order to slow down weeds enough to give the crop a chance to canopy over the open space to shade out weeds.  Row crop cultivating takes resources such as time, labor, fuel, and causes wear on equipment. We now employ cover crops on some of our no-till acres, and some covers are good at suppressing weeds.  Cereal rye is one of those covers.  I’ve seen organic no-till accomplished by growing a cereal rye cover crop which is later terminated with a roller-crimper ahead of planting.  The thick mat of rye keeps weeds at bay.
  • There is a risk of carrying over plant diseases when crop residue is not incorporated into the soil after harvest.  The residue serves as a host for disease and can infect the following crop.  However farmers can mitigate this situation by rotating crops that are not susceptible to the same diseases.
  • It takes time to see the benefits of no-till.  One can’t take a farm that has been tilled for 50 years or more and hope to see big gains in yield after one season.  Patience is important.  Soil needs time to regain structure, and that doesn’t happen overnight.  Right now we have a some fields that will be going into no-till and using cover crops between cash crops.  I plan to keep this system in place for a few years, and then we’ll see what kind of results we are getting from soil nutrient tests, water infiltration, compaction, and yield.
Crop Residue

This field was soybeans last fall that will be no-till corn in 2013. Soybean stubble along with corn stalks washed in from the field pictured above have made a thick mat here.

Moldboard Plow

This field belongs to a neighbor that hosts a plow day in the fall for antique equipment. Notice how there is no residue on the surface. Heavy rains have pounded the surface, making it hard for water to soak it. More rainfall will wash away valuable topsoil. The top layer of soil here will probably be almost a fine powder when the seed bed is prepared.

Winter Cereal Rye

This soil isn’t going anywhere! Our field here is under a cereal rye cover crop as of 4/26/2013. The rye was seeded into a standing corn crop September 2012. No tillage was done here either.


I think our farm needs to be leaning towards less tillage or none at all in the future, and right now we are headed that way.  In recent history we have sold off our ripper, a soil finisher, and traded our disk for that vertical tillage tool I mentioned.  We are expanding our cover crop acres which will more than likely be no-till acres as well.  Do you think we are headed in the right direction?

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  1. Would a cover crop in the area of the “amassed corn stalk residue” helped to prevent all that from washing into a corner of the field? I would think it would pain you to have to waste all that nice residue by burning it up…

    1. A growing cover crop in the midst of all this rain we’ve had in April would certainly prevent a great deal of these issues. Water infiltration should improve, and just the living biomass should slow down the flow of water outside and exceptional rain event. I should mention this corn field was fall chisel plowed so the stalks have been uprooted. But we have fields that are no-till that have soybean stubble piled up in the same manner. In fact the field across the road from the one pictured has that issue. Frankly though, this made a better photo since it shows a clear line of wear water place the stalks and then receded. The soybean stubble just looks like mud at the moment.

      1. I don’t understand the point of the last two pictures. You could have planted a cover crop just as easy on the top picture as the bottom. If you use proper practices run off shouldn’t be a problem with conventional tillage.

    2. no-tillage is thing that most farmers do not know about it because of lack of school or people to tell them what to go about it.

  2. very interesting read. I’d call us minimum till, harroed in fall to break up residue, nh3 applied after in late fall with a chisel plow using 1″openers on a 12″ spacing. Then one pass in spring with the harrows again before planting. Very interesting to read about your cover crops as well.

    1. We are looking into getting an NH3 toolbar of our own with low disturbance units. Mostly so we can pull a 60′ applicator to match the width of our planter and cut down on wheel tracks. Low disturbance should take less horsepower depending on how fast you want to go. Ammonia knives do a fair amount of tillage and can make our no till corn a bit rough.

  3. Great post Brian.

    No till is something that a lot people who don’t farm are not sure about.

    Many people seem to be heading in this direction. If I remember correctly, no till equipment is very expensive, so some people may shy away from it.

    Awesome job

    1. There’s always a trade off no matter what you try. If we unloaded our tillage tools and tractor we could pocket at $200,000, but we would incur other costs as well. I see cover crops becoming our tillage tools, but they aren’t free!

  4. We tried no till for 10 years on all of our farmland. Sometimes your soil type will help decide if it is the way for you. We ended up going to a minimum till program on our farm.

    1. Right now we are in a pattern of leaving ground alone behind soybeans and tilling most of our corn stalks. Like you I think we need to keep fields in the same program for a number of years first before we go one way or another. I’m interested in seeing if our vertical till could help incorporate broadcasted cover crop seed in fall and then no till in spring.

  5. I think you missed a small but very important point:

    Improved soil structure is THE big benefit. (Not “another” benefit.)

    By improving the soil structure and feeding all the micro-organisms who make up that structure, you are making the soil more fertile and less prone to weeds (like bindweed) that take advantage of soil that is poor. (Bindweed only “likes” soil that is severely unbalanced.) In this way, while you will need herbicides, over time, you will need much less herbicide to control problem weeds.

    In dry areas, no-till saves water for the crop. By not tilling, you have less soil that is exposed to evaporation. (I know you guys don’t have this issue, but here in Kansas, we need every drop we get.)

    Soil is a living, breathing, thing made up of billions of micro-organisms. All of these little creatures have interconnections, sort of like a big city. Think of New York. In New York, everyone has relationships: people depend on each other to make the entire whole work.

    Now imagine a hurricane wipes out the entire city. That’s what tilling does to these little micro-organism cities. Sure, they can rebuild, just like New York can, but it takes a lot of time to do.

    So No-till is a very slow process…but it works. And in dry areas, it is much more sustainable and better for the soil than organic till farming.

    Just because the farm is “organic” doesn’t make it sustainable…and most people don’t understand that..

    1. Great perspective, Heather. I knew somebody would find something to nitpick! You’re right it is THE benefit of leaving tillage behind. I was at a cover crop meeting recently and the gentleman who was speaking said a very interesting thing. He said most farmers think about getting the soil ready for a crop and feeding that crop throughout the year. We need to change our mindset and think about keeping the soil in good shape and feeding everything that lives in the soil while providing a good environment for them to thrive.

    1. I am from maharashtra a state of India.It is very correct that no-till is very useful in my area where rainfall is only 688mm i am trying this method from this year it is very less expensive small farmers.

      1. Good to know about the advantages of No-till Methods. Thank you all guys! I wish to start a small farm in India on the lines of No-till farming.

  6. Out here in the Southern Willamette Valley of Oregon where we grow grass seed. Grass seed serves as a cover crop along with many other uses. We rotate tillage methods between No-till, minimum tillage & full tillage. We do this for a variety of reasons including previous & future crop plans, soil types, increase drainage & weed control. Our soils are heavy clay so after many years of no till or min till it needs full till so the water can drain instead of just pool on top. We used to field burn which allowed us to go 3 years without tillage because it gave us a clean seed bed to start with, now we can only go every other year with no till & in the off years do minimum tillage or full. We keep a chart that allows to remember what we did each year. As a farmer soil health is most important and our farm to efficiently manage soil productivity it requires a combination of methods.

    Along with different tillage methods we also add different soil “supplements” in a rotation such as cow manure, paper waste or lime all to make sure our soil is healthy & productive.

    1. Why don’t you burn fields anymore? I would imagine that raising grass produces a great deal of residue that needs to be managed. I know you do some baling. Do you bale all your acres?

      1. The Oregon Legislature banned the burning of fields 4 years ago. They felt the dangers to health was too great, however burning only accounted for about 9 days a year (maybe) and was done on winds that would take it high out of the valley into the mountains & trees. The science was not there to support the ban and burning is still allowed in other parts of state.

        Since we do not burn any more we have increased chemical usage for weed & insect control. We are seeing weeds & insect problems that were not issues in the past.

        Ironically, we can still burn our wetlands because that is the natural way to control pest & disease.

        There is a lot of residue & we now bale all of our straw which there’s slowly becoming a market for but as usual it all depends on what is happening in the Asian countries. Last year it was good because China had issues with their rice straw. And of course baling doesn’t remove the stubble a home for insects & disease. 🙂

    1. We are actually growing about 25 acres of radish seed this year to then go to the cover crop market. Radish seed is a new crop to us and fairly newer to the South Willamette Valley. Our soils are also very saturated because we receive about 50 inches of rain a year. Only about a 1/3 of our farm can grow wheat which we use in our gcrops rotations but most of the ground is only suitable/great for annual ryegrass. I do not know what exact growing conditions radishes need but they are currently planted on more of our rockier fields on a slope.

  7. Hi to all.

    We are currently planting maize(corn) in areas that have had conventional maize planted in for the last 15-20 years. We have recently purchased a kuhn pdm pg maxima 1200 (6row at 75cm spacing) planter. We are getting terrible trash (corn stalks) build up at the front of the planter and as a result are having to stop regularly to clear The trash before we can continue planting. We are eager to avoid discing the lands! Please any advise would be most appreciated. Regards new no till maize planter

  8. Hello. I really enjoyed the read very helpful. I was just curious what to what kind of no tilI air seeders you guys use down there for your canola and wheat? am up in Alberta Canada.

    1. An air seeder is kind of a rare thing where we farm. A neighbor plants soybeans with a John Deere seeder. 1890 I think. Most of the wheat here gets drilled.

  9. In Western Canada, we have been in minimum tillage for nearly 20 years. It’s been great to see the interest in other areas. It has led to a substantial improvement in the productivity of our soil. I hope it works just as well for you down south.

    1. There was a plow day in our neighborhood last year. You could just drive down the road on a windy day and see the dirt blow off those fields, and then look at the next field in minimum or no-till and see the difference. Even with six inches of snow cover dirt was drifting across the road.

  10. I hope you all start getting away from round up! That’s the next step. With no till, weedsvare at a minimum, and corn can actually grow with some competition believe it or not

    1. We mostly use Roundup on our soybeans and for burn down applications. We almost never spray it on corn even if it’s Roundup Ready. It’s good to keep the modes of action rotated that way.

  11. My Dad was the first in our area of Michigan to no-till corn about 40+ years ago. The farm switched back about 15 years ago because they say they get better yields than with the no-till. Has there been any studies on yield that you know of?

  12. When you have a prior field with corn stock stubble ( 5-6″) what is the best way to clear so one can plant grass so mowable?

    1. You could try a controlled burn, but I’ve seen that get out of hand a few times if conditions are wrong. Till it under and prep a seed bed for the grass might be best.

      1. Thanks Brian, Sort of what we were leaning to but wanted some advise from those with experience in the field. Thanks again.

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