No-Till, Reduced and Conventional Tillage: A Cheat Sheet for Farmers

As you begin planning for the next growing season, you might be wondering, “Does tillage (still) fit into my farm operation?” 

Before making any decisions, here’s a quick refresher on two tillage options -- no-till/reduced tillage and conventional tillage -- and what they can do for your fields.

No-Till and Reduced Tillage 

No-till or reduced tillage practices allow you to spend less time in the field, save money on fuel and improve soil properties and structure. These practices leave more residue on the surface, while improving earthworm numbers and creating channels for water and nutrients to move downward. Root systems help break up light compaction areas as well.

Disking is an example of a reduced tillage practice that mixes residue in the top few inches, allowing for soil microbes to get a jumpstart on breaking it down. If the soil is moist, consider running tillage equipment no more than three inches. Vertical tillage has become more popular in recent years, running one to three inches deep and fluffing the remaining residue with shallow penetration.1 Coulters can be angled for more aggressive tillage and residue mixing. 

In a corn-soybean rotation using no-till, leave the corn head high and spread the trash coming out of the combine evenly. This limits the amount of residue matting the soil surface, allowing the soils to dry and warm up more quickly in the spring. The corn stalks also help to hold snow and minimize wind erosion. Planting soybeans into high residue fields works well, since they are more adaptable to the residue.

Conventional Tillage

Conventional tillage is still common across the country. The key is to balance residue management with improving soil structure, ensuring that you maintain at least 30 percent residue on the surface to minimize wind and water erosion throughout the winter and early spring.2 

Do not till wet or saturated soils -- this can create large clods. Excessive clodding can make it difficult to achieve a satisfactory seed bed in the spring. Chisel plows or rippers can be adjusted to run more shallow with straight shanks, limiting clodding and smearing of the soil. Keep in mind that subsoil tillage and ripping year after year does not help your bottom line. There is little information that  suggests a higher return on yield after the initial compaction pan is removed. 

Read this next: Should I (Still) Be Tilling My Fields? (3-minute read)

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Sources:
1. https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/tillage-implements#sources-1232660
2. https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/fall-tillage-and-tillage-equipment