no-till farming methods
  • Soil

No-Till Farming: Methods & How They Affect Agriculture

While most people associate plowing with the initial stage of field activities, no-till agriculture proves that farmers can perfectly do without that. In fact, the concept of no-till farming is even older than the conventional one. Yet, the no-till motives to apply it were different millennia ago and nowadays.

In the old times, no-till farming practices were conditioned by the primitive nature of cultivation tools or their absence. At present, the effects of no-till agriculture and its benefits to nature are the major drivers in the approach implementation, due to environmental care concerns.

No-Till Agriculture Practices

No-till farming methods suggest zero or the least soil disturbance. With conventional plowing, the top layer is turned over before seeding. Tillage helps to aerate the soil, incorporate manure and fertilizers, loose the earth for future fragile seedling roots, to destroy pests, eradicate weeds. However, this agriculture technique strongly promotes soil erosion, removing the cover matter, causes an imbalance in micro-communities, and releases soil carbon into the air, contributing to the greenhouse effect.

What is no-till farming then and what techniques does it employ to plant seeds, if the soil must not be disturbed? The following farming practices make up the fundamental approaches of the concept.

growing corn without tillage

Absence Or Minimal Tillage

No-till method of farming requires special equipment (disc seeders or agriculture drills) to make furrows, immediately plant seeds, firm them, and cover (unlike double-passing the field after plowing). This way, the soil suffers from minimum disturbance, as it is dug exactly where the seed is supposed to drop. Furthermore, planters allow the least fertilizer spends, applying them right into the furrow via designated tubes.

Sometimes, no-till agriculture does involve minor or narrow tilling between the seasons if high yields generate a lot of manure and it composts poorly, inducing diseases or interferes with planter operations. Another case is lime incorporation to balance the acidity.

Cover With Straw

Weed control is a major concern in no-till farming since weeds cannot be destroyed mechanically. To solve the problem, agriculturalists cover inter-rows with straw, dry hay, or mulches. It not only helps to suppress weeds due to lack of light but accumulates moisture and protects plant roots from the burning sun.

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is an efficient agricultural technique with multiple benefits. As a no-till method of farming, it assists in the following issues:

  • weed infestations and pest invasions since different types of crops have different pest and weed threats;
  • soil erosion as alternative plants have different roots;
  • soil fertility owing to the property of legumes to release nitrogen.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring is an online tool for agriculture that greatly facilitates crop rotation decisions and no-till farming implementations in particular. It allows comprehensive monitoring and analysis of vegetation states in real time as well as the recent five years. Retrieving weather conditions in the light of several years along with data on vegetation indices, farmers can choose the most suitable crop with respect to the specific climatic needs of each plant. Simply put, they can opt for the most appropriate crop for a particular field.

weather and vegetation data on EOSDA Crop Monitoring charts

Effects Of No-Till Farming On Soil

The world “to-till” originates from Proto-Germanic with the basic meaning “to cultivate”, “to plow”. The primary goals of no-till agriculture are to avoid cultivation with soil improvement in mind.

How Does No-Till Farming Help To Reduce Erosion?

No-till agriculture reduces soil erosion. Tillage breaks the earth’s surface and turns it over, moving the cover layer inside. As a result, the bare soil is subject to erosion because of the loosened structure. Deprived of cover matter, it is subject to quick erosion due to water flows, especially in slope and steep areas, and winds. The rainsplash erosion is another issue to consider as flexible particles are easily removed when hit with heavy rains. Correspondingly, the absence of soil disturbance in no-till farming eliminates the issues.

Why Is No-Till Agriculture Important For Soil Carbon Sequestration?

No-till agriculture is essential for soil carbon sequestration. Tillage transfers soil carbon to the soil surface. Released carbon gives nutrients to plants, which is a good thing. However, it reacts with the atmosphere oxygen binding to carbon dioxide, which is a bad thing due to the greenhouse effect, so no-till farming carbon sequestration is a great advantage to consider. In the latter case, carbon remains in the ground. This is why no-till farming and the reduction of carbon dioxide closely relate.

How Does No-Till Farming Help To Conserve Soil Fertility?

No-till farming helps to conserve soil and preserve its fertility. Tilling interferes with the earth’s flora and fauna balance impacting micro-communities. It does help to mechanically control mature pests and their larvae; yet, it destroys beneficial species at the same time. With no-till, certain soil microorganisms in their natural habitats are capable of improving soil fertility with their activities. Another contribution of no-till agriculture to soil fertility is nitrogen enrichment by legumes, which is useful to subsequent crops in crop rotation.

saving soil fertility with cover crops

Benefits Of No-Till

Maintaining soil health is just one of the advantages of no-till farming. It competes with alternative practices flaunting other merits as well.

The major benefits of no-till farming include, among others:

  • Savings on tillage equipment needed to plow the entire field. Modern machines allow sowing directly on the residue-covered strips instead. Furthermore, plants can get nutrients from the decomposed matter this way.
  • Limited fossil fuel inputs for field operations (6 to 2 gallons  of diesel fuel per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
  • Shorted operation time. Sophisticated seeders do the job faster and complete it in one-field pass.
  • Avoided human labor for tilling operations and maintaining tillage machines.
  • Conserved moisture and decreased water spend due to slowed evaporation and low cracking.
  • Eliminated herbicide leakage due to less frequent irrigation.

Weighing no-till farming pros and cons, more and more farmers convert to the new method year by year, encouraged with the USDA conservation programs and economic standpoints. The agriculture approach implementations vary across crops and regions. An ERS research gives the adoption data for 2002-2017  regarding separate crops.

growing organic corn with no-till practices

Does Organic Agriculture Use No-Till Farming?

One of the major no-till farming disadvantages is the necessity of increased weed control that involves industrial herbicide applications and its consequences for mankind and nature.

Organic no-till farming utilizes integrated weed management to resolve the issue, using non-chemical herbicides, cattle or poultry grazing, cover crops with mowing before seed settlement, and crop rotation. Suppressing weeds by sparing methods, farmers contribute to environment protection, nature regeneration, and human health.

Also, there is a common confusion that no-till agriculture uses genetically modified organisms with higher resistance to weeds and pests, which does not comply with organic farming. It does not accord to no-till farming either. The idea is to select stronger, and thus more resilient species, not genetically modify them.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Performing fields analytics based on relevant satellite data to ensure effective decision-making!

Check Your No-Till Fields With EOSDA Crop Monitoring

EOSDA Crop Monitoring is a user-friendly online tool designed for remote field control and assistance in farming activities. It operates satellite retrieved data enabling agriculturalists to make weighted decisions.

In the light of no-till farming practices, the software for agriculture helps to estimate the overall health of crops, providing the following agriculture information:

  • compares historical and real time data on production zones;
  • elaborates vegetation index charts (NDVI, NDRE, MSAVI, ReCI);
  • determines stages of plant growth;
  • measures soil moisture on the surface and the root zone;
  • allows distinguishing between bare zones and areas covered with vegetation to prevent erosion;
  • provides weather forecasts.

How To Manage Effective Herbicides/Fertilizers Use With EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Chemical applications are core concerns of present-day agriculture striving for organic solutions. No-till farmers are forced to increase herbicide usage due to rapid weed growth on uncultivated lands.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring aids in tackling the issue with its zoning feature that comprises productivity and vegetation maps. Productivity maps help in no-till crop rotation. Vegetation maps check vegetation density and determine plant health outlining critical areas of low productivity that can be a result of weed infestations or nutrient deficiency. The feature for agriculture enables farmers to differentiate herbicide/fertilizer use, limited solely to problem zones (instead of entire fields).

productivity map on EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Herbicide/fertilizer options also vary depending on weather conditions and growth stages – the data available in EOSDA Crop Monitoring as well.

Managing Low Residue Level In No-Till Fields

After-harvest crop residues or cover crops bring multiple benefits: protect the earth from erosion, warm it up and dry out in spring, add nutrients for the next season plants, suppress weeds, and serve as mulch, to mention a few. However, at the beginning of the sowing season, they are often undesired. If the residues are low, they may not require any treatment in no-till farming. Alternatively, if the area is bare or covered with scarce vegetation, it requires additional covering.

High residues interfere with planter operations, preventing the ground from proper drying and warming in spring. For these reasons, they have to be removed.

Conventional farming combats undesired vegetation with plowing. No-till agriculture excludes this method, using other crop residue management options: herbicide applications, cutting for forage, or grazing.

A typical example of double cropping in no-till systems is planting winter grains, crimson clover, or hairy vetch in fall and cutting them before flowering to grow summer vegetables or mid-season brassicas no-till in the cover crop mulch. Other sequences may be growing corn after hay  or growing soybeans after wheat.

These no-till farming activities are prolific, but they require proper timing. If the terrains are dry enough, residues should be removed one-two weeks before. If the terrains are wet, it should be done right before planting.

EOSDA Crop Monitoring can detect the areas with high bare ground cover granting a farmer with precious information what field areas require extra residue cover, preventing soil erosion.

distinguishing bare soil and vegetation with EOSDA Crop Monitoring

Future Of No-Till Farming

No-till farming systems are not likely to bring results as early as the next season in the majority of cases. Nevertheless, the concept adopters claim that the endeavor is still worth trying as they managed to reap higher yields in the course of time. In perspective, no-till farming seems to be a promising concept in terms of money spent versus money gained.

This is not the sole merit, however. No-till agriculture is beneficial to the environment, eliminating the negative impact of farming activities on the environment, climate, and earth’s overall health.

These key no-till farming advantages are supposed to encourage even more method adoptions in the future.

About the author:

Vasyl Cherlinka Scientist at EOS Data Analytics

Vasyl Cherlinka has over 30 years of experience in agronomy and pedology (soil science). He is a Doctor of Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Dr. Cherlinka attended the engineering college in Ukraine (1989-1993), went on to deepen his expertise in agrochemistry and agronomy in the Chernivtsi National University in the specialty, “Agrochemistry and soil science”.

In 2001, he successfully defended a thesis, “Substantiation of Agroecological Conformity of Models of Soil Fertility and its Factors to the Requirements of Field Cultures” and obtained the degree of Biosciences Candidate with a special emphasis on soil science from the NSC “Institute for Soil Science and Agrochemistry Research named after O.N. Sokolovsky”.

In 2019, Dr. Cherlinka successfully defended a thesis, “Digital Elevation Models in Soil Science: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations and Practical Use” and obtained the Sc.D. in Biosciences with a specialization in soil science.

Vasyl is married, has two children (son and daughter). He has a lifelong passion for sports (he’s a candidate for Master of Sports of Ukraine in powerlifting and has even taken part in Strongman competitions).

Since 2018, Dr. Cherlinka has been advising EOSDA on problems in soil science, agronomy, and agrochemistry.

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