Sustained high fuel prices in the United States are forcing farmers to consider ways to save, leading some to wonder if they could cut back on fuel costs by switching to a no-till production system. While no-till might reduce fuel bills, other expenses could negate potential savings. The larger benefits of a no-till system still make it worth considering, says Chad Godsey, cropping system specialist with the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.
“A producer will definitely save on fuel, but other expenses may increase, such as herbicide costs,” Godsey says. “Producers should adopt no-till practices to maintain long-term sustainability, not to save on fuel for a year or two. Fuel savings will be minimal compared to the benefits of improved soil quality.”
Long-term soil productivity is the biggest attribute of no-till, according to Godsey. Tilling soil causes it to lose carbon, which accounts for more than half of soil’s organic matter, which is critical to overall soil productivity as well as water-holding capacity.
Moisture savings is the second-most important benefit of no-till, he says.
As an example, Godsey estimates conventional-till systems with little or no surface residue precipitation storage efficiency is 20 percent. That means out of a 10-inch rainfall during the fallow period, only 2 inches are conserved.
“Precipitation storage efficiency estimates in no-till have been 40 percent. You can conserve two times as much moisture in a no-till system compared with a conventional-till system,” Godsey says.
Other benefits of no-till include reduced wind and water erosion, decreased soil compaction and reduced labor.
New herbicides, pesticides and improved cultivars have made no-till possible, and its benefits have been proven. Not everyone is ready to switch, however.
“I think no-till producers are in the minority, especially in Oklahoma,” Godsey says. “I would guess that only 7 to 8 percent of planted acreage in Oklahoma is in continuous no-till. Even though the concept of no-till has been around for decades, it is still relatively new compared to conventional till methods — no-till is not what their parents and grandparents practiced.”
If farmers are truly interested in adopting a no-till system, Godsey advises them to plan carefully and seek information from Extension and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. But, perhaps his best recommendation is to find a mentor — another producer who has experience with no-till.
“They have experience and have worked through some of the same problems you will probably encounter,” he says.