Steps to reduce tillage on your farm

Farmers have long considered tillage a useful tool in their land management toolbox. It can help create a suitable seedbed for planting, reduce the initial flush of weeds in the spring, incorporate soil amendments, and reduce surface compaction. Tillage also has negative impacts, which are gaining more attention and pushing adoption of reduced or zero tillage.

How does tillage impact soil?

The majority of soil activity occurs in the first 1-2 inches of the topsoil. When it is disturbed and soil below the surface is exposed soil carbon is at a higher risk for CO2 to be released due to microbial respiration. Soil carbon is a key component of productive soils that acts like a sponge for nutrients, water, and food for microbes – all of which support the life on and in it.

In addition, exposure of soil aggregates decreases their stability, and they are more likely to be eroded away by both wind and water. It also increases the risk of soil crusting, as an increase of soil particles and decrease of soil aggregates clog soil pores and prevent water infiltration.

Reducing the impact of tillage

You may be thinking a shift to reduced or no-till requires a massive change and new equipment, but there are minor changes you can make using existing equipment that will help reduce soil disturbance.

  • Reduce the number of trips across the field. Rather than disking the field in fall and spring then running a finisher over top, run the disk just once, particularly in fields with soybean residue.
  • Reduce tillage depth, especially if you are just looking to incorporate residue.
  • Reduce the angle of your blades if possible.
  • Avoid sweeps or points that are curved, as this will throw more soil.
  • Till with the contour of the field rather than up and down the hill to prevent gullies during rains or snow melts.
  • If you are interested in purchasing, rent equipment from a neighbor, co-op, or your local soil and water conservation district first. While you will be paying rent on the equipment you can try it out and get a feel for it before you make a purchase. 

*BONUS: Tillage equipment often costs less in fuel and wear and tear if it is a reduced tillage implement.

It’s easy to forget every soil is unique and has a different management history, soil texture, and crop rotation. These factors can make reducing tillage challenging, especially if you’ve already reduced as much as you can. If that’s the case, consider newer equipment, techniques, or technology.

And there’s even more to think about: Seed companies continue to breed varieties of crops that have strong seedling vigor and cold tolerance; equipment manufacturers are creating variable rate tillage technology; and soil texture and weather patterns have a huge impact on how often/what kinds of tillage you can do. Many farmers and experts report a combination of cover crops and reduced tillage practices can make for successful changes.  

Continuing to tweak your tillage practice will pay off both in the short and long run. You gain valuable carbon, increase nutrient cycling and water holding capacity, and create a more resilient system. While tillage may have played an important role on many farms, the technology is now available to adopt more beneficial practices for you and your soil.

Consult these additional resources for more valuable tips:

 https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/economics-tillage#costs-when-growing-soybean-1177510

https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/reducing-tillage-intensity#economics-1153414

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs142p2_023200.pdf

https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/encyclopedia/frequent-tillage-and-its-impact-soil-quality

 

Anna Teeter

Anna Teeter recently joined Cargill as Conservation Agronomist with Cargill’s regenerative agriculture program. Her goal is to help farmers successfully implement soil health practices while continuing to advocate for agriculture. Anna brings extensive hands-on experience having worked with the University of Wisconsin-Madison extension services, private ag consulting services, and most recently the Soil Health Partnership, which led her to Cargill. She has a Bachelor of Science in Agronomy and Life Sciences Communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Masters of Science in Soil Science.