I always get the pleasure of ruffling the feathers of SOMEONE when I bring up no-till, and not coming from a farming background, I was non-partisan in this argument.
For those of you less familiar with the workings of production agriculture, there are three parties within the till/no-till argument and those of you very closely have heard me talk about this time and time again. First you have the die-hard tillage or no-till folks. Secondly you have the producers who choose to do one practice, but frankly could care less what others do, often stating that since it is not their land, it's not something they want to let bother them. Thirdly, you have those that tinker with both tilling some land and no-tilling other parts of their land.
As you can probably tell, I'm quite a proponent of no-till. What brought me to this conclusion? It's quite simple. I work on a farm that has successfully been no-tilling for roughly three decades. Some at first, and after a while, it was all no-tilled. I have watched subsequent success with this practice, and therefore plan to continue this trend myself.
What good does it do? With no-till, you skip the step(s) of tillage that precede spring planting. This does a lot of difference with the land. In one case, it may take a little longer for you to get into the field in the spring because you have not turned the soil inside out once, twice, three times, or as many as some do. This can also save your butt in a year of drought. One of the fields on the farm was planted to soybeans following the wet spring of 2012, and through the drought, still yielded 60+ bushels an acre. Why is this? There was much more water contained in the layers of soil due to the skipping of tillage. Had we run a disk and cultivator over the ground and then planted the beans, it would have been just one more field in Indiana that looked sad thanks to the drought. Instead, we had success. Back to my original question of what does no-till do... We could talk in terms of runoff. In a four year study conducted in Oregon, beginning in 2000, there were thirteen occasions noted of runoff in the traditional tillage model that resulted in a loss of .20 inches of soil, and .19 tons/acre. The no-till model only showed three occasions of runoff, resulting in a loss of .03 inches of soil, and 0.00 tons/acre. The study can be found at this link. This is especially important in sloped areas. The greater your slope, the more soil loss will happen. Many will claim that runoff will not be bad for flat ground. I know of a man who had to re-dig a small pond on his flat farm due to the flowing of soil runoff from the his and the neighbor's conventionally tilled fields across the road. There stands a mound of soil and dirt next to this farmer's pond that will attest to this fact.
What is the opportunity cost of no-till? This opportunity would be a positive number by a large margin. Consider the fact that as long as you have some sort of either pull-behind sprayer, or self-propelled sprayer (which the majority of farmers will have one or the other anyway), and a planter and/or drill that can plant into non-tilled ground, that is the extent of the equipment required for no-till (It is implied that you must have a tractor to pull these implements). With tillage, you are looking at the need for tractors of far higher horsepower to pull your disk, cultivator, crumbler, and whatever other tools you choose to use in the tillage system. This quickly equates to the up front savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more if you are farming a very large operation with more equipment. The opportunity cost that you face when viewing nutrient and topsoil loss over time is something I find hard to overlook. I personally don't want to knowingly send my nutrients and topsoil down the river... I'm not going to change your mind, or your practice most likely, but I feel this is all something worth carefully considering before you pull that disk out of the shed next spring.
Here is a link to a video discussing difference in tillage and no-tillage and the true impact on soil. The speaker is a USDA-NRCS Ohio State Agronomist.
Here is another link on cover cropping and no-till from SARE.
Linking up with Holly here.