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Give Your Farm a Rugged, Natural Look

Posted by Spencer Miller, NRCS in Conservation
Nov 01, 2018
A no-till planter working
A no-till planter creates little soil disturbance and keeps plant stubble in place, providing further protection for the soil and the soil microbial ecosystem.

Many farmers till during the fall. This year, we encourage you not to. Leave it be, let it grow. Save time, money and improve your soil’s health by joining the farmers who observe “No-Till November.”

The idea for No-Till November came to Neil Sass, an agronomist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “I’m always thinking about new ways to talk about soil health,” Sass said. “I thought ‘Hey, No-Shave November is a good way to highlight men’s health, why not promote No-Till November as a way to highlight Soil Health?’ It seemed like a pretty good fit.”

No-Till November Do Not Disturb graphic
Save time, money and build your soil health by adopting no-till farming.

The analogy does fit. Soil is like the skin of the farm: it’s a nourishing barrier for what grows above and beneath. But whereas a shaving razor stops at the surface of the skin, tillage rips into the soil and can inflict harm.

“Tillage is a dramatic thing with respect to the soils,” said Sass. “For everything living in the soil, it’s akin to an earthquake, tornado and fire happening, all at the same time.”

Why is the practice still so popular? “It’s just something we’ve always done,” he said. Tillage has been practiced for generations, which means it can be accepted uncritically as a necessary part of farming. That used to be true, but not anymore.

As Sass explains, “We had to till for a while, just to grow crops. We didn’t have equipment and tools for weed control or preparation of the seed bed.” But steady advances in technology since the 1970s – both in farming equipment and crop genetics – mean that tillage is no longer necessary.

Repeated tillage undermines soil structure and reduces aggregate stability; it breaks down organic matter and drains carbon from the soil.

“Sometimes we say quitting tillage is like quitting smoking,” said Sass. “It’s hard. Even when you know the costs, quitting is hard.”

No-till is one of the key practices of soil health management systems. According to Sass, the benefits of no-till grow over time and spread far beyond your farm. With no-till, you can improve water quality through prevented erosion. Your soil structure will remain intact, able to absorb more water and handle heavy rain. No-till keeps your soil on your field and out of the watershed.

And if those aren’t enough reasons to “keep the stubble,” Sass proffers some bottom line benefits for farmers, too: No-till will save you time and money. You’ll spend less time on your tractor. You’ll use less fuel. You’ll have less wear and tear on your equipment. No-till is a win-win for your soil and for your pocketbook.

“When you have the support of trillions of microbes, you can grow more with less,” Sass said.

This fall, consider the benefits of no-till through the lenses of soil health, water quality, economics and beneficial microbes. NRCS helps farmers, ranchers and forest landowners plan and implement a wide variety of conservation practices, including no-till.

To learn more about available conservation practices, contact your local USDA Service Center. You can also learn more on NRCS’ Soil Health webpage.

A side by side image of no-till vs conventional tillage
(Left): A no-tillage corn field after a week of 0.5 to 1.5 inch scattered rain showers in Northwest Iowa. (Right): A conventional tillage corn field after a week of 0.5 to 1.5 inch scattered rain showers in Northwest Iowa. Photos by Iowa State University.
Category/Topic: Conservation

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Comments

Gary Alex
Nov 01, 2018

I have been no till for years when lots of farm's have given up,this year fungis took my bean yields from the lower 70s in Hendricks County to the lower 40s in Morgan County. The beans also looked rotten, how can I continue to notill when the fungis is present in the stubble, fungicide at 16$ per acer every 14 days during the growing season does not seem to be a good option, thinking about getting the old chisle plow out.
Any suggestions.

Denise Williams
Nov 02, 2018

You need a share so we can put this on our Facebook page.

nitrotwisterNTguy
Nov 02, 2018

I switched to 100% NT in 2013. After 5 years it is awesome to witness soil stability. This year in central KS we received above average rainfall July through September. In October in the first 6 days we received 8 inches of rain. Conventional tillage operators received irreparable damage to the fields due to soil erosion. The NT guys received zero to minimal effects. Our soils are the cash register, not the crop. Protect the soil first, it is the foundation from which everything grows.

Thomas Shileny
Nov 02, 2018

A little constructive criticism, I would refrain from using these pictures as your examples of a no-till vs tillage system in the future in publication both within the USDA or especially outside of the agency to producers and landowners. For starters, the settings and environments of each location are different. The no-till is obviously in a very fertile place which is a stark contrast to the setting for the "tillage" scenario. With the mountains being directly in the background, I be inclined to believe that would be in a more arid region with desert like conditions but that is not the most egregious part of that photo. The worst part is they are not doing tillage in that photo. that would be a scraper in the photo which is not tillage equipment but is used in dirt construction. another dead give away is the random direction and patterns of tire tracks. Looking at it I would say the ground is getting leveled for the construction of a business and parking lot. I do believe in cover cropping/no-till systems as the answer to many of the problems but if this single picture were used in any promotions aimed at producers it would set the movement backward and hurt our agency's credibility a bit. If I am able to spot this, I can guarantee the average producer can as well.

Ben Weaver
Nov 02, 2018

@Thomas Shileny - Thank you for bringing this to our attention.

The image has been replaced with a side-by-side showing the impacts of scattered rain showers on no-tillage and conventional tillage corn fields in Northwest Iowa. As always, we appreciate your thoughts and contributions to our blog and hope you’ll continue to follow along this month as we encourage others to consider the benefits of no-till and other voluntary conservation practices available through NRCS assistance.

Ben Weaver
Nov 02, 2018

@Gary Alex - Thank you for reaching out. We’d love to help! As you know, every farm and acre is unique and requires tailored management; and every decision maker has different management concerns and needs. To find your service center, you can visit a local USDA service center. Please stop by and ask to talk with your local NRCS district conservationist. They will likely know more about the specific issues you’re facing and can provide one-on-one, personalized advice and support to help you make the best decisions for your land.

William York
Nov 02, 2018

How do you get this started?? I've been trying to find some ground that is close to being affordable. I just came across some and starting the paperwork. I do have cows now but not nearly as many as I need to produce an income.

Dave
Nov 02, 2018

You people forget about the farms that have to spread manure on their fields. Not a good idea to leave it on the surface for nutrients to evaporate and wash into our waterways

Alan Baker
Nov 03, 2018

Without tillage, how are weeds controlled?

jerry Grigar
Nov 05, 2018

Wonderful article. No-till manage for C instead of T. Being a no-till farmer and observing the changes 37 years of no-till have had in SOM on 8 soil types from sand to clay loam is amazing.

I like the slogan No-till November Do Not Disturb.

I watched the neighbor chisel plow his soybean residue this weekend so now the winter runoff can help fill the recently cleaned drainage ditch with sediment. The cost is 2000 per year for the next 20 years on my property taxes to pay for the neighbor's soil that filled the drainage ditch. No till farms should not have to pay for drain maintenance if they did not add soil thru erosion...or at least pay less in drainage maintenance taxes....

Ben Weaver
Nov 05, 2018

@William York - Thank you for the comment. A comprehensive conservation plan is a good first step. Stop by your local NRCS field office to get started. We offer free technical assistance and can even arrange a time to walk the farm with you and work with you to develop options to address your needs. Our tool box includes aerial photos, soil surveys, engineering solutions, and individual science-based analysis customized for your property. The process also makes it easier to identify how and when you could qualify for Farm Bill financial assistance to help you install conservation systems, or receive incentives for trying new ones.

Bryan Hummel
Nov 05, 2018

Excellent information,
Great marketing of this important practice (no-till November), and the timing along with No-Shave November,
and fantastic images highlighting how these soil health practices allow farms to soak the rainwater up as an agricultural asset, before the runoff washes away valuable topsoil and contributes to downstream flooding liabilities.

KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK!!!

John Souza/ Souza Family Farm
Nov 07, 2018

First; I've been told that army worm as well as other corn borers can over winter in corn stubble,we already have enough problems keeping corn clean.(as a kid I remember hearing talk that army worm was at such a high threshold that if you refused to plow stubble under the U.S.D.A.would have it done at your expense )
Second, we don't all live in "the valley" with nice smooth soft soil most of my fields are so gravely that they look like a dry river bed after a couple rains settle the dirt. Very heavy auto reset plows have trouble getting in if the land is on the dry side at all,(even old sod may not plow well due to hardness) no till equipment in very "bony" land equals scrap steel in the making.

Kathleen Kroese
Nov 09, 2018

Can u direct me to a co-op or whatever it’s called where farms in need of business partners can get together and work out investment plans?

Ben Weaver
Nov 09, 2018

@Kathleen Kroese - Thank you for the comment. Here are some good resources to start with:

  • USDA has a partnership with a nonprofit, SCORE, that can pair you with a free business mentor. Mentors can help you on all aspects related to the business operations of your farm or ranch. Check out newfarmers.usda.gov/mentorship to learn more and sign up.
  • Your local Land Grant University has extension agents who can connect you to organizations that work one-on-one with producers on these issues. They may also host workshops and classes on these topics.
  • Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of having a support network—whether it be a mentor or other producers. There are a lot of opportunities for networking in agriculture. Attending your local agricultural events, farm conferences and farmer meetings will help you develop a network. And don’t forget about the network of farmers at your local agricultural cooperative, farmers market or food hub.