No-Till vs Tillage Farming: All You Need To Know

Tradition and trends exist in all walks of life, and they’re not likely to go anywhere any time soon. Farming and agriculture are not strangers to either of those concepts. This is something to remember by those who promote no till farming, as not many farmers are willing to just make the change from tilling to no tilling.

But what is tilling and why are some people opposed to it? Tilling is something many farmers do in order to prepare the field for cultivation. The process consists of  series of actions performed with pretty heavy machinery and tools. Tilling has a very long history and at different points in time, other tools and workforce have been used. Agriculture can also be done without this land preparation, with equally satisfying results.

What are the Benefits of Tilling When Farming?

Farmers have a variety of reasons and methods to prepare their properties for cultivation. One reason is tradition, with the explanation that their fathers and grandfathers used them and they had positive results, thus there’s no reason for them to change what they do.

There are situations where tillage helps with making the upper layer of the ground more loose and making planting easier. Doing this is very helpful in areas with a very dry or tough soil. Having said that, tillage is also good to dry the field in areas where the climate is more wet.

Performing these preparations in autumn helps with getting a smooth planting surface in spring, something that may not happen in zero tillage farming. In some cases, land leveling is enough for this purpose, but sometimes more aggressive techniques are needed.

Nobody wants weeds growing in their crops, as they compete for sun, water and nutrients in the soil, resulting in a smaller harvest. Pests are another type of harvest enemy. Tillage mechanically kills the weeds, but not the pests. As a result, herbicides and pesticides are also used to ensure no new weeds start growing and that no other creatures come attacking the plantation.

Many people know that after the crops are collected, there’s plant residue left on the ground. By tilling the area, the residue gets buried which then turns into nutritious elements for the next agricultural season. Seeds, manure, and fertilizers, get the chance to be better incorporated in the soil and get closer to the seeds and the roots of the future seeds, and thus leading to a richer harvest.

What are the Benefits of No-Tillage Farming?

Before jumping into the benefits of not plowing the field, we should understand the no till farming definition. If tilling the land means preparing it for plantation, eiter in spring, in fall, or during both seasons, no tilling simply means those processes are not being used at all.

Many people, regardless of being farmers or not, seem to think that altering the soil is the only way to yield a high harvest when farming. This is not the case, as some soils and crops yield better when people choose not to till their properties. The performed studies also showed the soil was healthier when the preparations weren’t implemented. There was also evidence that the harvest was just as or more abundant without tilling.

When no tilling is performed, the crop residue is left on the surface and that’s where it turns into nutrients for the next agricultural season. It has been observed this process actually has higher fertilizing properties, than when said residue is buried. Other fertilizers can also be applied directly where they’re needed, by using the correct tools.

Folks who consider farming but have lands on a slope are generally discouraged from proceeding as tilling there is a challenge and the plot can erode faster. These farmers should consider no till agriculture as the plant residue protects the ground from wind and rain damage. The residue will also protect against the difference in temperature recorded in the daytime and at night. Many crops grow better when the temperature is kept relatively constant.

Farmers that live in areas with dry land or climate also benefit from this practice. By leaving the residue on the ground, they ensure the land also retains more water as it doesn’t evaporate as fast. They might also not have to use as many nitrates and artificial fertilizers, as these stay in the soil for longer than on a tilled land. This is especially useful when the summer is really dry and hot or in generally dry climates.

Many farmers will also notice lower costs related to their trade, as they’ll need less fuel. Some of their big and heavy equipment can be replaced with smaller ones that will be more than enough for the tasks they’re used for.

When choosing this type of agriculture, it’s really easy to also switch to an organic no till farming. We’ll talk more about this aspect later on.

Drawbacks of Tilling

Tilling has several drawbacks, mostly for the soil receiving the treatment. Farmers first notice their lands get dry because the soil is no longer able to store water. However, the land will also lose its ability to store nutrients and other elements the crops need. Many farmers will proceed with even more tillage to fix the issue.

Almost everyone knows that there are some insects that are good for farming, however they’re driven away by this process. The tilled areas will in turn attract unwanted pests, such as slugs, worms and other types of destructive insects.

Tilling also has the following negative effects on the land, such as:

  • Making it more compact
  • An increased possibility of crop diseases accumulating on the surface, which can later spread easily
  • With time, soil erosion.
  • Poor water infiltration
  • The surface drying before seeding, especially if too much time passes between the processes
  • Deformity of the soil when plowing on a land that is still too wet, otherwise called a plastic state
  • Spending more time in the fields plowing, as it takes several passes to get the right results
  • Increased costs with a high fuel consumption

Drawbacks of No-Till Soil

By analyzing the disadvantages of tilling, one would think there can be none when farmers decide to give up those methods, but this isn’t the case. There are several drawbacks to not using these techniques in agriculture and they are generally the reason why some farmers decide to continue on with them. There are of course others that do try to find yet another solution to get the same results.

One major downside is that herbicides must be used instead to kill or control the weeds along with pesticides to drive away insects or other crop destructive critters. There are many such chemicals that don’t affect the harvest, but many consumers refuse to buy produce that has been treated with them. The reason for this is that we have yet to discover the long term side effects of ingesting those compounds. What we do know is that the substances do break down quite fast once in the ground, and that a very little amount passes in the products we eat.

Another downside is that the soil will warm up slower because it is covered in crop residue that acts like an insulator. Depending on the type of crops, the residue can turn into an issue. Such a situation is encountered when planting corn every year, as these plants can easily form quite a thick blanket over the field. The solution here is to use the right equipment able to penetrate through the residue and then deep enough into the soil when planting time comes.

Alternative Solutions

At this point it’s easy to understand why there is an increased number of opponents to tilling the land. Speaking about this form of soil preparation almost reached a taboo subject in some circles.

The good news is that there are several alternatives to both tillage and no tillage. These include:

  • Selecting crops that thrive in the soil as is, with no tilling involved whatsoever, like the zero tillage definition dictates
  • Choosing to till every other year, this practice being called rotational tillage. Such a practice reduces its negative side effects
  • Strip tilling, a method that creates stripes on the ground, and the seeds are planted in the exposed rows
  • Performing tillage only in autumn
  • Opting for zone tillage where deep tilling is done in rows, like in the strip tilling
  • Conservation tillage, where there’s at least 30% crop residue left on the field

Some farmers consider these alternatives as no tillage agriculture, even though is rather obvious the practices are in reality only a reduced form of tilling. The negative effects of reduced tilling are of course the same as with regular tillage practices, but they’re less obvious. This can only mean they’re preferred by those who want to reduce their impact on the land.

A much less destructive and more eco-friendly method is planting a cover crop. There are a number of plants that can be selected for the purpose, and they help with reducing the soil erosion, but improving its fertility and quality. At the same time, the no till cover crops will help with controlling the pests no matter of their type, diseases, water, and wildlife.

Managing the field with no tilling can be a real challenge, as shown above, especially if the produce is not purchased due to the chemicals used on it. However, farmers that decide not to till their fields can also choose to plant cover crops for the benefits mentioned earlier.

Which Method is Better?

There seems to be a misconception going around farmers, as most seem to believe that what works for one of them will work for everyone else. This is far from being true: one solution will successfully work for a group of people, but it’s definitely not good for everyone everywhere. That’s because there are a number of factors to consider before deciding which one to use. Even then, the solution might look good on paper, but in reality it can be a disaster from a financial point of view.

What’s more, is that many of them have noticed that if they want to switch from tillage to no till system, the land doesn’t respond as expected right from the start. The area needs an accommodation period before the harvest will be as abundant as hoped for. The new method might also need to be tweaked a bit during the time the soil becomes accustomed to the new farming methods.

Turning Organic

Farmers need to be aware that by using many of the methods mentioned above, they work against the nature, and not with it. Working with the nature would lead to healthier soils and far richer crops. However, to be able to work with nature’s help, means that farmers must discover which crops are better suited for their fields.

Everyone should have their properties inspected to discover what type of soil they have including its chemical composition. Then they can ten learn what type of vegetation is best suited for their soils to get the richest harvests.

To turn organic, they must stop using chemicals on the land and on the plants. Surely weeds will start growing, however there is a type of vegetation that can be planted to fight the weeds, and that doesn’t affect the crop. Doing so is even cheaper, more efficient than tillage, and can even bring a bigger profit.

Things to Keep in Mind

There are many ways of preparing the field for the new agricultural season, and some of them are more destructive, time and money, consuming than others. Many of them alter the quality and the health of the soil, and to fix the problem and obtain a rich harvest, a variety of chemical compounds are needed.

Most of the preparations involve one or more types of tilling: chiseling, plowing, disking, stripping, or ridge planting. However, even the no-till approach is still a form of readying the area for planting.

What everyone should do before deciding on which practice to adopt, besides having the lands analyzed, is to talk to their neighbors. Finding out what kind of preparations they make for planting, what type of crops they use, as well as what kind of results they get can help with deciding on the best tilling method for your needs and expectations.

You might discover that one form or another of conservation tillage might be helpful on your lands than no tilling at all. This type of tillage can be used when planting the seeds for instance. In such a situation, a special machine is used to drill small holes in the ground, where the seeds can be dropped at the same time. This type of planting can also be done by hand, though of course will be more time consuming and more tiring for the people doing it.

Remember that when this method is used, you must leave some residue from the previous crop on the field, and the soil cannot be turned over.

For a good harvest, rotating the crops in this type of farming is helpful for various reasons. For instance, different plants will absorb different nutrients from the ground. If the same crops are planted year after year, the soil loses those nutrients and the harvest becomes poorer and poorer. If in different years the farmer plants crops with different nutritional needs, the soil has a chance at remaking the lost nutrients with the previous plants.

Regardless of the chosen or preferred tillage system, farmers should know they can provide consumers with organic produce. By doing so, they also reduce their negative impact on the environment which is the main purpose of the no-till type of agriculture.

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