Farming Techniques: No-Till Agriculture

No-till agriculture, also called no-till farming, zero tillage, or direct drilling, is a method of traditional agriculture that focusing on growing crops season to season without disturbing the soil by tilling. When farmers use the no-till technique, they increase the amount of water that goes into the ground, retaining and cycling organic matter and nutrients. It is effective at reducing soil erosion, has the potential to increase the variety of life in the soil, making it more resilient and fertile.[1] No-till is one of the most profitable methods of crop production.[2]

No-till “relies on natural processes to break down residue from the previous crop.”[3] What do these “natural processes” mean? First, crops from the previous season (called crop residue) are chopped and left on the ground. Then, a no-till planter lightly pokes small holes in the earth to plant seeds. Before and after planting, eco-friendly herbicides that are both safe and effective are used to stimulate plant growth.[4] An essential part of no-till agriculture is killing off the majority of weeds before planting.[5]

Earthworms play an essential role in this method of farming because they naturally stir up and mix the nutrients in the soil while improving its structure and porosity. Since untilled soil has a higher level of microbial life and beneficial insects, earthworms thrive in this habitat.[6]

The concept of no-till farming is relatively new. For ages, farmers have plowed the land to plant crops. With mechanizations in agriculture, like the tractor, emerged in the 20th century, it became even easier to till fields. However, as soil erosion has become a problem farmers across the world faced, the switch to no-till farming has become increasingly attractive. Inventions in the 1960s that made it easier to farm without disturbing the soil.[7]

In recent years, the trend toward no-till agriculture has slowed. In 2004, just 7% of farmers across the globe practiced no-till farming. The leading countries in this figure include the US, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and Argentina. Europe, Africa, and Asia barely implement it, and China is recently starting to adopt this concept.[8]

A report from the UN Environmental Program proposed that for more countries to use no-till farming, governments would have to intervene by offering incentives, research, and training to aid in the transition. For example, Australia’s government has imposed tax credits to farmers as a reward for switching to no-till farming.[9]

There are advantages to no-till farming, mostly environmental ones that can help reverse the effects of climate change that are already in the works. One of the main pluses of this method is the reduced cost for labor, equipment, and fuel. In the process for preparing the soil for planting, higher labor productivity ends up saving time and money.[10]

A second benefit is an improved soil structure. Plowing fields season after season disrupts the natural structure of the earth. Soil structure is essential for providing crops with nutrients and water. When the ground is repeatedly broken up, carbon is released, and that is necessary for organisms in the soil to grow. Refraining from using heavy farm equipment also helps prevent soil compaction, which can cause soil pockets that prevent water, microorganisms, and crop roots to move freely.[11]

Third, leaving crop residue on the topsoil when no plants are growing helps reduce soil erosion. Additionally, the residue helps water and melting snow absorb into the soil better, rather than sitting on the surface until it evaporates and taking with it nutrients within the topsoil.[12]

As with any method of farming, there are a few disadvantages to no-till agriculture, namely, the increased use of chemicals. Since farmers cannot control weeds through plowing, they may depend on herbicides to eliminate weeds. This can cause greater runoff into waterways and damage the soil over time. And as weeds develop resistance to different chemicals, they become harder to get rid of, and farmers may double down using stronger weed killers.[13]

A second risk that comes with no-till agriculture is the spread of plant diseases from unincorporated crop residue after harvesting the crops. Leftover crop residue can become a home for disease and infect the next season’s plants. By rotating crops that aren’t susceptible to the same diseases, farmers can decrease the likelihood of crop disease.[14]

Finally, it can take multiple seasons for farmers to reap the benefits of no-till farming. It can take up to four years for the results to show, and if the land has been tilled for many years prior, it could be even longer. The investment in a no-till farm will not be returned in a short time frame. On top of that, if a farmer that has previously tilled the land, he will have to make extra investments in equipment designed for no-till techniques.[15]

Overall, the transition to no-till farming could be an ecological benefit, but with heavy use of chemicals to rid the land of weeds, it could be counter-productive. No-till farming may be best for smaller, local farms so that the amount of weed killers remains minimal.