What growing techniques shape your production? Plow, chisel, disk, ridge plant – all of these tillage systems offer different advantages when growing in poorly drained soils and aim to start your growing season off with a suitable soil environment. If tillage is in your planning, ideally it’s  executed conservatively: the mechanical manipulation of soil promotes erosion, creating greater need for compensating inputs over time, and larger strain on food production systems worldwide. 

Then, there’s no-till. Ideal for adequately draining soil, advocates for no-till crop production stand by the practice not only yielding comparable (or better) results to conventional till approaches, but that it also has the capacity to outperform in cost expenditure and its resilience to seasonal variability. Whatever you may choose for your cultivation, measuring the results of your practice along the way will help you refine how you grow over time.


Factoring in Soil Erosion

Though tillage has value in commercial agricultural production, there is no denying that it contributes to accelerated soil erosion. Soil erosion is a natural part of landscape shifts over time, and occurs when water, wind, or tillage detaches topsoil from the ground. Losing topsoil in substantial quantities in a short period of time, however, promotes soil compaction, low organic matter, loss of soil structure, poor internal drainage, salinisation and soil acidity issues. An increase in extreme weather events due to climate change adds pressure on important soil infrastructure already stressed by commercial usage. 

Losing topsoil at an accelerated pace can look like an inch of erosion over a 25 year period – and gaining an inch back, depending on the region you are referring to, can take hundreds of years. Tillage affects the pace of natural erosion through the promotion of water runoff, because, as the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) highlights, it moves soil to convergent areas of a field where surface water runoff concentrates. Exposed subsoil from tillage is then vulnerable to water and wind. Land management practices that are mindful of conservation can mitigate the long-term impacts on soil health and future growing. Reducing reliance upon tillage in your farming practice is a well-established aim throughout contemporary commercial growers. 

A Summary Look at No-Till 

The contemporary advent of what is now referred to as ‘no-till farming’ is associated with Edward H. Faulkner in the 1940s. Asserting that plowing was damaging and laborious, he sought to avoid the practice. It wasn’t until after World War II that no-till farming became adopted by other growers, largely due to access to effective herbicides. Early adopters of the practice tried different do-it-yourself modifications were made to existing planters to add weight to the rear, to adapt to forgo tillage. Now used internationally but particularly throughout the North and South American countries like the US and Argentina, no-till farming’s increased popularity remains elusive to commercial farmers who lack access to enough capital to make the switch. In spite of the potential long-term financial benefits. Planter equipment and herbicide inputs are costly, especially if previous investment has already gone into conventional till methods. 

The primary framing of no-till is focused on nurturing soil health, namely by navigating residue with effective planter equipment that can penetrate through this layer. No-till means taking the least amount of trips across the field compared to other methods, and instead focusing on cultivating more biomass, utilizing cover crops and embracing residue. A corn-soybean crop rotation is a prevalent choice. By sticking to a herbicide – plant – herbicide – harvest procedure, soybean and corn residue do the work of retaining moisture and preventing erosion, offering a 70-100% reduction in soil loss compared to conventional tillage. After harvest, corn stalks and fallen grain offer use to wildlife; not tilling allows earthworms to create channels that promote roots. Conventional till methods leave the soil surface bare, which in the short-term offers a warming dark surface that promotes growth, but over time can contribute to compaction, as well as restricted water movement. 

Recently published results from a long-term study on no-till practices suggest that this growing methodology offers consistent benefits to environment, yields, and economics. Conducted by Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station, the 30-year study demonstrates a consistently improved yield in a corn-soybean-wheat rotation, amounting to an increase of 40 bushels per acre. This was compared to tilled plots that utilized moldboard plowing from 1989 to 1998, and then chisel plowing after that. The researchers expected an initial boost in results at the start of the study, which is typical of farmland transitioning successfully to continuous no-till, but the long-term benefits came as a surprise. More long-term data is needed to draw effective conclusions as to why the no-till crop results demonstrate a steady yield increase as opposed to plateauing, but regardless this is validating news for those already on the No-Till train.



Organic No-Till

Contemporary no-tillage is typically associated with herbicides and crop varieties bred to tolerate them – but organic no-till strategies have been developed as well. The simplest form of organic no-till features a fall plant of annual or winter annual cover crop (like rye), which is left to overwinter until mature in the spring. This crop is killed with a tool called a roller crimper, and then planting of a cash crop can occur in the same pass. Organic no-till further emphasizes soil biology and utilizing cover crops for weed management. 

What About Strip-Till?

Strip-till is a fusion of conventional and no-till practice, where farmers till narrow 6- to 12-inch wide strips between rows. This mitigates the effects of erosion that come from tillage, but provides the benefit of soil warming that can accelerate plant emergence. Strip-till is also helpful for drying out wet soils, placing fertilizer more precisely, or relieving soil compaction caused by conventional tillage. Taking a middle-ground approach with strip-tilling can also be reassuring that you’re doing your due diligence with your field, if you’re used to tilling but are trying to lean back and rely on the residue. Peace of mind may cost you, but so does a whole season of worry!


Thinking of making a big change in your production practices? Measuring all the details of your crops can help with future planning, and fine-tuning your approach for improved quality and yield. Croptracker’s production practice tracking offers activity recording for every task and the equipment and labour costs associated with each. Request a demo today and find out what solutions Croptracker can offer your operation.