Guide to No-Till Farming In Missouri & Iowa
Each season, US farmers prepare to plant new crops by turning over the soil in their fields and burying any residue from last season’s harvest. Over the last few decades, scientists have begun to question the benefits of this practice and study the effects of an alternative farming method. As a result of their studies, many US farmers have begun to implement no-till farming on their lands.
No-till farming is a technique that aims to preserve soil quality while maintaining and even increasing cash crop yields over time. According to Roger Claassen, agricultural economist with the USDA, the number of US farmers practicing no-till operations has increased from five percent in 1988 to twenty-five percent in 2008. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of no-till farming in Missouri and the costs associated with converting your farm fleet to no-till equipment.
What is No-Till Farming?
Rather than tilling the fields to aerate the soil and bury debris after a harvest, no-till farming leaves the soil undisturbed. Instead of tilling, farmers plant cover crops to replenish the nutrients consumed by cash crops or spread fall residue across the field to lock in the soil’s moisture. Next season’s cash crop is planted into the field using specialty equipment that drills seeds through the living green cover crop or residue.
What are the Benefits of No-Till Farming?
No-till farming has proven ecological and economic benefits. Transitioning requires patience, however, as most no-till benefits aren’t realized in the first season. Transitioning to no-till practices is a long-term strategy that will compound its benefits with each passing year. The nine major no-till farming benefits include:
Better Soil Quality
Geologist David Montgomery estimates that the world loses 23 billion tons of good soil a year. Over time, continuously tilled soil turns barren, and the amount of soil amendments needed to produce a harvest is unsustainable. No-till soil is different. The superior soil quality that results from no-till farming can be seen through the presence of earthworms and other living organisms in the soil, increased crop yields, and the quantitative results of soil testing every four years.
Less Soil Compaction
Conventional tillage breaks up the soil leaving it vulnerable to compaction by heavy machinery. No-till farming preserves the natural soil structure that helps resist soil compaction.
Greater Water Retention
Layers of fall debris and cover crops allow no-till soil to retain moisture and resist sun and wind evaporation. Increased water retention decreases the farm’s water usage and irrigation needs.
Increased Erosion Control
The higher quality soil produced by no-till farming is held together by nutrients and living organisms. This denser soil quality helps reduce the erosion effects of wind and water. Cover crops and fall debris also increase erosion control by creating a layer of protection on no-till fields.
Decreased Fuel Costs
Implementing continuous no-till practices reduces tractor use and fuel requirements. According to the USDA, diesel expenses on 1,000 acres can be reduced by approximately 4,160 gallons a year with the use of continuous no-till farming. At $2.05 per gallon of diesel, this would save a 1,000-acre farm roughly $8,500 annually.
Decreased Fertilizer Costs
Replenishing nutrients in the soil naturally through complimentary cover crops reduces the need to amend the soil each year with additional fertilizer. Over a few years, farmers should see a marked difference in their fertilizer spending.
Higher Cash Crop Yields
Higher nutrient and biological content in the soil has shown to increase cash crop yields. While some farmers have reported increased crop yields after just one year of no-till farming, most yield increases will come after a few years of adopting these new practices.
Greater Waterway Quality
Increased water retention and decreased compaction leads to better absorption of chemical herbicides and pesticides and less runoff into local waterways. Keeping fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides out of local waterways helps preserve our drinking water and protect local wildlife.
No-till farming decreases the time farmers must spend in the fields. Tilling can add one hour of work for every 15 acres. If you are managing 1,000 acres, eliminating tilling can save 67 hours of work for each pass the tractor would have made across the fields.
What are Cover Crops?
Cover crops are varieties of plants known to replenish nutrients in the soil and create protective barriers on dormant fields. Cover crops are chosen based on the specific geography, season, and desired outcome of your field. Some common cover crop varieties include:
- Annual ryegrass
- Cereal Rye
- Crimson Clover
- Hairy Vetch
Some vegetable crops such as okra, daikon radish, and fava bean also serve important roles as cover crops. To determine the best cover crop for your fields, the Midwest Cover Crop Council provides their Cover Crop Decision Tool. This excellent resource can help you explore crop options that will increase the health of your soil and cash crops.
Role of Cover Crops in No-Till Farming
Planting a cover crop the season before you adopt no-till farming practices has shown to increase the chances of a positive cash crop yield during your transition. In no-till farming, cover crops are seeded into your cash crop residue and grown in the off-season.
Four important roles of cover crops include:
- Reducing soil compaction
- Replenishing organic matter
- Anchoring soil in place to reduce erosion
- Providing livestock grazing
As you prepare for your next cash crop season, you can either “plant green” or terminate the cover crop with no-till equipment. Planting green involves seeding cash crops directly into the live cover crops. Planting green has shown to improve weed control without adding increased pest pressure.
Top Equipment for No-Till Farming
In order to make the switch to no-till farming, you will need new pieces of equipment. The exact tools you need to enhance your operation will depend on your cash crop, acreage, and current equipment setup. Here is an overview of three pieces of no-till farming equipment you’ll need for your operation.
When it’s time to terminate your cover crop, you can apply chemical herbicides or take an organic approach. A roller crimper is a water-filled drum that attaches to the front of a tractor and mows down the cover crop. The cover crop remains on the ground as a thick mulch that helps deter weed growth. Roller crimpers come in a variety of sizes and features. Depending on the model you choose, expect to pay between $5,000 and $60,000 for this tool.
For many traditional farmers, the idea of planting seeds into a bed of freshly mulched cover crops seems unrealistic. Large cash crops rely on uniformity to maximize yields, and a row of uneven plant debris seems an unlikely environment to produce uniform crops. Row cleaners are designed to help ensure uniform seeding depth by creating a smooth path. Floating row cleaners are especially useful for creating consistency in changing field conditions and cost less than $500.
With your roller crimper attached to the front of your tractor, you are ready to seed with your no-till drill on the rear. Specially designed to cut through heavy plant residue, precise no-till drilling can place seeds at the correct depth and ensure good soil contact as they press the soil back over the seed. Adding a no-till drill to your shed will cost you around $30,000.
Farm equipment loans for No-Till Farming
Transitioning to a new system means finding the means to shoulder upfront expenses. In the case of no-till farming, an investment this year should lead to decreased labor, fuel, irrigation, and fertilizer expenses in the future. If you are considering making the switch, BTC Bank is here for you. At BTC Bank, we’ve been supporting local agriculture in Missouri and Iowa for over a hundred years. Our team of agricultural lenders have designed our farm operating loans and farm equipment financing to help our community members grow and adapt to new technologies.
Want to know how an agriculture loan could help your business? Contact one of our friendly lenders today. Our knowledgeable team members are available at our Missouri offices in Bethany, Gallatin, Albany, Cameron, Pattonsburg, Chillicothe, Carrollton, Boonville, Beaman, Trenton, Gilman City, Maysville, Osborn, Jamesport, Buffalo, Oregon, and in Lamoni, Iowa.