June 15, 2021

Johanning: To till or not to till

By Nathan Johanning

Planting season is upon us. Many acres are already planted across the state along with lots of additional field work done. In this busy time of year, when every day and hour of good soil conditions counts, I stop and think, as farmers, are we making the best use of our time? How can we get through more acres? Is the answer bigger or more equipment, more help, or just need to work longer days? Every situation is different so that answer might look different for all of us, but have you considered how you manage tillage and how this can influence your bottom line when it comes to how many acres you plant for the time invested?

With the technology we have available today, there are many opportunities to no-till crops with great success and in that process, eliminate the time, fuel and wear and tear on equipment that comes with tillage passes. Much of this technology is right at your fingertips as many already have no-till planting equipment and use the latest in crop genetics. Often, shortly after soil conditions are decent enough to make a first tillage pass you could probably have soil conditions ideal to no-till plant. In the time it takes to run the disk twice, you could probably have had that field planted and maybe moved on to another field and you would have saved all of that time and fuel. In some cases you may need to add a sprayer pass for a burndown, but many times this pass can be incorporated into an existing pass already planned and certainly another pass would be a lesser expense than the fuel and labor to complete the tillage.

Now, there are still other reasons you might feel that tillage is necessary. One thought is that no-till soils are colder. This varies with soil type and sometimes a no-till soil might be a few degrees cooler, but nothing dramatic. I would pose this scenario: A no-till soil that is couple degrees cooler but has less soil crusting since it has not been tilled; or a tilled soil that might be slightly warmer but crusts over after the first rain. Which of these crops would be better off in then end? I honestly think the crusting could be a greater barrier than a slightly cooler soil.

Generally, soybeans are a bit more adaptable to transition to no-till than corn without a little experience, but both can easily be done. No-till corn benefits from starter fertilizer or some upfront nutrients to help it get off and growing, replacing some of the nutrients that tillage would otherwise mineralize. Some seasons as you transition to no-till corn maybe struggle some that first month, especially without any starter, but in observations it rebounds once established and doesn’t reduce yield in the end.

There are many other ideas we could discuss around this topic, including nutrient and pest management, cover crops, and planter set up along with many other benefits to your soil and the environment. Look to others in your area that have had success with no-till, many of which are happy to share the things they have learned. Remember if you do transition to no-till, it is truly a transition, and those first few years can be the hardest. However, as your soils build and adjust to no-till, things will start to get easier. Think about if no-till can open up any opportunities to reduce your work and still cover the same acreage.

Nathan Johanning is a University of Illinois Extension commercial agriculture educator.