No Till Farming Not So Great After All


It was just a couple of handfuls of soil and a few drops of water, but for the world of modern farming, it might as well have been a bomb dropping on the staid headquarters of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Washington. It actually happened, or at least first made the news, in Wilmington, Ohio, at the third annual Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium. In a news article about the meeting, in Farm and Dairy magazine, there’s a picture of a farmer and a scientist looking intently at a tabletop demonstration of soil porosity in samples of tilled soil and “no-till” soil. The result, and I quote: “The no-till samples provided more resistance to water infiltration while the tilled samples provided much less resistance and water moved more freely into the soil.”

I grabbed the phone and called Chris Kick, the farm reporter and journalist who broke the story, to make sure this was not a mistake and that I was interpreting the results correctly. “I think you’re telling me that tilled soil actually saves more plant nutrients and results in less water runoff and erosion than no-till soil,” I said. He sort of laughed. “Well, this is going to be open to various interpretations, I’m sure, but yes, that’s what the experiment was demonstrating.”

It will be fun to watch how the National Resources Conservation Service (no longer the Soil Conservation Service which is not surprising since conserving soil no longer seems to be its primary function) hem-haws its way out of this one. This is absolute heresy, overturning the pious claim about how no-till is such a good conservation practice. Officialdom in agriculture has put all its money on no tillage, that is planting crops with little or no cultivation of the soil, as the salvation of farming, even saying in some instances that “we have licked erosion”  which I think is the biggest lie since the one about how “we have licked inflation.”

If this scientific demonstration is true, it could explain three “phenomena” that have appeared over the last few years in our corn and soybean fields. 1.)  Many of us have observed an increase in the number and size of temporary ponds that are occurring in our leveler fields after rain. 2. Even more of us notice that after rain, our creeks flood more often and more severely than used to be the case. 3). Everyone has observed and scientists have documented the alarming increase in nutrient runoff, especially of phosphorus, into lakes and rivers. Could it be, in all these cases, that no-till farming is the culprit?

I am crowing in a very unseemly fashion because I have been saying this for years and because the very function of so-called no-till today is proving that I (and many others) might be right. Almost all farmers, in my neck of the woods anyway, are finding it necessary to do quite a bit of soil tillage but because they use a “no-till” planter, NRCS allows them to act out the farce of saying they are practicing no tillage. In fact, in my observations, and I was pleased that Chris Kick more or less agreed with me, more and more “no-till” farmers are tilling their soil quite a bit before planting. They are using traditional tools like disks and chisel plows and new ones like so-called vibra-shank tillers that loosen the soil up without turning it over. The reason they are doing all this is that truly no-tilled soil tends to firm up in density and compact not all that much different than the old evil plow pan that comes with too much soil tillage.

This is not nature at work; this is human technology at work, all in a vain attempt to free most of the people from having to help grow the food. My conclusion, as always: Until nearly everyone accepts the responsibility of food production without employing gigantic machinery and animal factories, just as they accept the responsibility of scraping food residue off their teeth every day without using a bulldozer, we will not learn how to avoid the collapse of civilizations.


This article just sounds like another attempt to preserve the status quo. Debating between no-till vs till might as well be Chevy vs Ford. Meanwhile Toyota is the better car. Meaning, there is no one size fits all approach. I will say that we dont need a bunch of machinery. People like Cindy Connor have proven that we can lean mostly towards using manual labor to grow our crops. The amount of disturbance to the soil largely depends on the current state it is in which is dependent upon its beginning state through to what has been done to it in the long run. If nothing has been done, then it might be necessary to break the present cycle by tilling at the start. Future tilling is dependent upon how the farmer works with the ground from then on. Initial tillage IMO is always justified. Future tillage is usually a cop out or result of making bad choices. Because the whole idea of permaculture is establishing a self sustaining environment for the things an individual grows in one particular area. Again, no one size fits all. We as farmers must grow as much as the soil and crops. When I see an airplane spreading dust, I cringe at the ignorance of that farmer.

From my understanding of no-till, they should not require fertilizers and chemicals – that is the main point of doing no-till. Keep the organic matter in the fields so you don’t need to add the chemicals that will run off. The old, traditional way of no-till ensures this and that is how it works not with the modern additions that seem to have become part of it. – and has

I think the statement about run off of phosphorus increasing is rather a broad statement without any clarity on the type of farming occuring up stream. The statement should not be made without more facts included. I would almost bet it is not from the no-till farms. Also, if there is more standing water in the fields (as stated) then the water is not running off is it? It may not be infiltrating either but swampy areas often have anaerobic organisms which can be involved in nitrogen fixation and denitrification – THAT might also have an impact.

The problem is no-till is being recommended as a panacea, where in the real world no such solution exists. No till was developed in semi-arid areas where adequate moisture is a problem, instead of the problem being too much moisture. Also, soil texture and drainage plays an important factor, I would strong advise against no-till in poorly drained soils, or in any soil with a (clay) modifier in the soil description. I also would advise against using no-till the year you plant small-grains.

The bottom line is in order to be effective the cropping system in place must generate INCREASED soil organic matter vs. conventional tillage, otherwise the compaction will continue to be a problem, So, certainly systems that use cover crops will do better, as will rotations with higher amounts of residue. Note that soybeans have very little residue and it is finely shredded and decomposes relatively quickly.

There will always be conflicting results from scentific studies; that’s what science is all about. Eventually, the weight of evidence comes down on one side or the other. The unscientific and (in the writer’s own words) unseemly crowing over one study because it happens to fit one’s own prejudices should not be an excuse to dismiss no-dig as a waste of time. Other studies in 2011/2012 have shown benefits for no-till/dig methods: Beltsville Agricultural Center in Maryland reported increased yields and reduced pest damage for tomatoes; the University of California achieved equivalent yields for cotton and higher yields for tomatoes; and a joint project by the University of Tenessee and the University of Lesotho in Africa has shown that abandoning tiling reduces the erosion and water runoff, and improves yields.

And the tillage debate rages on. Amidst all of that, the last few lines of the post are where the gold is. This problem, along with a string of others, is related to the practice of paying specialists to handle our food production for us. We call them farmers. What we need is a new ethic of self-sufficiency that includes a basic ability to grow one’s own food, or at least to be able to find it, hunt it, or trade for it. Some things will always require a farm-scale solution, I suspect, but the more we empower people to take care of their own needs, the more we will see these problems evaporating.

We don’t need a world with more farmers; we need a world with more gardeners. I’m trying to hone my gardening skills toward that end, slowly weaning myself from the farmer’s stipend of food upon which I regrettably depend. I wish all my neighbors were as welcoming to the inevitable failures that accompany this honing, but Americans like their grocery stores and microwaves. At some point, we’ll probably be forced to make the decision to start growing our own food, but until that happens, I foresee many more debates about how to make a bizarre agricultural phenomenon into something that won’t self-destruct.

Were does tillage exist in nature other than a glacier? No-till soil hard? I honestly don’t know what one could be talking about. It is certainly stronger but it seems easier to penetrate to me. I walk my fields as much as anyone to spot problems and I can say no-till has eliminated my erosion. I can walk on my no-till fields in the spring and after a rain because the water has infiltrated, not run off. Countless studies point to this fact. One step in my neighbors plowed field and I have mud covering my legs. In gets as hard as a parking lot when the weather is dry though.
Why is it we all know the problems of tillage but flock back to it at the first excuse?
No-till with a diverse rotation and cover crops works great! A corn-soybean rotation will have problems no matter how it is done but no-till has to be preferable to intensive tillage every year. Being skeptical of the NRCS just for the point of being skeptical makes no sense. The government has long been a part of agriculture and the NRCS contributes far more to the well being of the land than the Farm Service Agency or the Risk Management Agency.
I really don’t care what what the rest of your views are so much but I hate to see a viable farming practice trashed by those who were prejudiced against it from the beginning. I can not comment on what I haven’t seen but neither can anyone else. A trip to Dakota Lakes Research farm to see what no-till has done for the productivity of farming in central South Dakota ought to at least give an objective person pause regardless of their natural bias. There are many accomplished people of various backgrounds who can attribute to the benefits of continuous no-till as well.
Finally, I am not against organic farming either. I have seen organic farms which I have felt were way too intensive on tillage, but a system which minimizes tillage by rotating row and forage crops I cannot quarrel with. So there go. We can all win.

Maybe I’m too late to comment, but I recently returned to the sand hills along the east fork of the White River in southern Indiana to grow produce, after spending the previous two decades in college and northern California. “You can’t grow tomatoes or watermelons without fungicides any more,” the farmers told me.
“Why?” I asked, all summer, until September when helping a neighbor harvest watermelons, and the subject came up again.
“It’s probably all the fungus living and breeding on the crop residue since everybody switched to no-till.”
Now they are hiring crop dusters to spray fungicides on soybeans and wheat.

    Spec i haul auto parts down that way every day and saw a plane dusting or spraying last summer.My small farm is in owen count a county or two over from the us 41 corridor. Ive wondered about that and all the irrigation pivots there and wondered if it would pay. My soil is the extremely poor clay Vigo soil type.I’ve wondered how they do since each fall i see them disc under remaining melons on the fields. Ive thought when I get my farm going about seeing if i could collect the old melons and feed to hogs.

Wait, what? A demonstration is alleged to show no till is bad, and we get a chorus of ‘see, I told you so!’
An actual rational voice shows up showing that the exact demonstration results are opposite to what was claimed here and we get ‘flim flam, salesmen, flawed science, I question these results, agenda!’

Motes, beams, eyes, etc.

Roof, I continue to be amazed at the sharpness of your mind. Thanks for taking the time to educate all of us. Gene Logsdon

I have been thinking a lot about “no till” farming lately, having heard so much about the benefits from the permaculture camp and others. The thing is, on our place (, under our conditions of short growing seasons and cool nights combined with heavy soils, using our system of horse-drawn tillage into raised-beds, you aren’t going to get much in the way of produce without tilling the soils, creating the beds which warm up faster, increasing the oxygen and yes indeed the moisture flow. We’ve demonstrated this on our place. And this begs the question, who says tillage based farming, done right and under the right conditions, was “broken” and needed discarding in the first place? The findings Gene highlights here make absolute sense to me. It’s nice to see the pendulum hover however briefly over middle ground for a moment.

I was hoping someone would respond to scientist. I went to the link recommended yesterday and watched many of the presentations, and I felt grateful for being old. Over the years I have developed a reflex: when someone shows me a power point presentation, complete with bar graphs and pie charts, my ass just puckers up. I know that person has an agenda, and historically, their agenda won’t be good for me.

Last evening, I watched Mr. Scarpitti’s demonstration several times, and I realized that I could replicate his demonstration right here in my little valley, and the conclusion would be the same, cubed. I could take 3″ thick bricks of undisturbed soil, 20 feet from each other: one would be sandy sediment washed off a hillside, topsoil complete with organic material, and it would absorb the green sugar. The other sample would be the clay subsoil with no organic material, because it’s creek bottom. Actually, you could replicate this demonstration from samples taken from one field with identical methods of tillage. Could it be tillage isn’t the only thing at work here? It wasn’t isolated as THE variable, only A variable. This demonstration wasn’t science, it was marketing. People who bought into this demonstration probably have several drawers full of ShamWows!, and slice their tomatos with their credit cards. Please go to about the one minute and four second mark of Mr. Scarpitti’s demonstration and he’ll say he already knows the answers, and just needs the documentation to prove it. That isn’t how science works, that’s how you sell things. Mr. Logsdon tilts at windmills, Mr. Scarpitti sells the windmill.

    Excellent reply Roof !! I listen to some of the “conservative radio shock jocks” out of boredom and a lack of alternatives when driving our companies various semis every day and listen to the windmill sellers every day. Just sitting back and thinking for a little bit makes me realize that at least 75 % of the time they have more shit then a manure spreader !! lol

Thanks for the laugh! I have seen that very demonstration a dozen times and it is the No-till sample that allows the water to move through the soil, not the tilled. So what was written is flat out incorrect. Don’t believe me, go to Ohio Department of Agriculture website:

Click on the Soil Quality demonstration by Mark Scarpitti, USDA, and watch the video for yourself.

In any case, it is good to know that Gene is still out there at work twisting facts and tilting at windmills.

Jim Snyder, you are absolutely correct: I painted with too broad a brush. These modern planters are precision instruments, and the fertilizers are necessary. I stand corrected, and thank you. I know some of the same kinds of farmers you write about, and it’s good to read what you write.

Maybe I misunderstood what was going on at Malabar farm 40 years ago; I thought it was called regenerative agriculture. I thought Mr. Bromfield was trying to reclaim land that had been ruined by traditional row crop cultivation. I thought back in the days of Bogie and Bacall that Mr. Bromfield was into strip cropping, crop rotation, and contour plowing (around the grade, not up and down), and the % grade would determine what remained or became trees, or pasture, or on milder slopes, row crop rotation. He tried to manufacture topsoil out of subsoil, which meant increasing the organic matter in the soil so moisture and nutrients would be absorbed rather than run downhill. Calling Louis Bromfield an early advocate of no till is a bit of a reach. I can see where no till might be a good application on some gentle slopes, but no tractor belongs on a 7% slope.

    Bromfield did indeed write multiple articles on no-till farming and give lectures in the area promoting it. I can’t recall if the practical technology really existed yet, but he definitely advocated the idea of it. To a degree, yes he may have pushed for pastures rather than fields in certain cases, but he was definitely against tilling the hillsides. Among the other things you list, yes, he pushed for all of those as well. My great grandfather knew him, and attended his lectures about new farming ideas. The greater-Pleasant Valley region is now almost entirely practicing no-till, crop rotation, contour farming, etc. As for a 7% slope, ha! We’ve got 60%+ that we farm. Would it be better for the soil if we didn’t? Maybe. Does the tractor survive? Definitely…well, depending who drives it I guess!

Just a couple parting comments and I’ll move on…..

“Most of the “improvements” in our system of agriculture have been genetic.”

This is not totally accurate although hybridizing and selecting for certain traits have certainly increased our crop yields dramatically in the last 200 years. GMO seeds really have not lived up to the hype of increasing yields without increasing inputs. Yield improvements the last 70 years have increased primarily from better farming techniques and synthetic fertilizer. These techniques include better equipment for seed and fertilizer placement, improved drainage and irrigation water management, and better nutrient and pest management.

“Hills are why no-till is crucial to modern farming. As a neighbor to Malabar Farm, it is evident no-till is a godsend around here.”

This statement is in relation to my statement that no-till is being used on land that should have stayed in forages (pasture and hay). We should not be planting continuous row crops on highly erodable hills more than twice in 7 years. I grew up west of Malabar Farm and took a couple courses in soil and water conservation at OARDC in Wooster. This is the area where I observed soil (gully) erosion underneath heavy crop residues. This area is also better farmed with strip cropping on the contour. Pasture based dairying is the best use for this area.

I miss the arrowheads also! I used to find boxes full back in the 1980’s. Very few since.

While I can see the merits of tillage, in many cases there is no contest. For example, Louis Bromfield (who we all know as an early advocate of no-till) was right when championing no-till at his home, Malabar Farm / Pleasant Valley, near Perrysville, OH. The difference here and the “average” farm the tests were probably meant to represent, was simple geography. Hills are why no-till is crucial to modern farming. As a neighbor to Malabar Farm, it is evident no-till is a godsend around here. The entire area is a series of rolling hills and valleys, connected via multiple rivers. Those rivers carried away precious topsoil for nearly a century, caused by tilling the fields. Loose Soil + Rain + Hills = Massive Erosion. Bromfield saw this, and tried to stop it. In a large part, he succeeded. It was already too late in some place, nearby hills are still barren save for some hardy weeds even the cows pass over…all of this because there is no topsoil left.

Sure, tilling has its place… but not near Pleasant Valley. On another note, I curse no-till farming on a regular basis as I walk my fields…since the area is a treasure trove of arrowheads and indian relics, yet by not tilling they all lay under the surface.

Does anyone have a link to the original research on this that is leading to a “no till = bad” conclusion? Thx. I’m curious about specific methodology, controls vs. test, condition of soil before the trials started, etc.

Oilseed radish is a popular “new” covercrop that can be cost shared on from a couple USDA programs administered by NRCS. Contact your local NRCS office for more local information. Experienced growers tell me they are not cost effective for the benefits. The roots do not go down nearly as far as alfalfa but they do freeze and decompose normally over Winter. In case of a mild Winter where they would not die completely, I would hate to speculate on the management issues that could result. I personally like cover crops like annual rye, triticale and hairy vetch. I say “new” because they really are not new and were popular in the 1990’s also.

Another great bunch of comments. Logsdon, you could have offered to change the title to “Sacred Shit”. Wouldn’t hurt to be a little flexible.

I learned something interesting at a Christmas dinner last week. Now and again here in Ohio, there is a cover crop planted in the fall that is some kind of radish. With our mild fall and winter this year, it’s still deep green. I had just assumed it was a cover crop, but I was told the roots go into the soil pretty deeply, and it’s used to break up hardpans, much like alfalfa used to be. I was also told the cost is subsidized by my taxes. Can you guys help me out here and confirm or deny my information?

Most of the “improvements” in our system of agriculture have been genetic. We’ve greatly increased our yields, without accounting for nutritional value or taste. When you take 200 bushels of corn off an acre instead of 110 bushels, you still have to replace the increased nutrients used, so in effect, we are just “mining” the soil. Louis Bromfield recognized this a long time ago. We don’t recognize the word “tilth” anymore, the amount of organic matter in the soil, which helps soil absorb and hold moisture. That’s why our soil and chemical fertilizers tend to end up in the oceans, compounding our problems. Rainfall tends now to go sideways, instead of into the ground.

OK, here’s my experience. I’m not a “real” farmer by any stretch, but we practice organic agriculture on our small Market Farm. Years of reading Organic Gardening, etc. and experience with raised beds for early spring planting prompted us to incorporate some permanent raised beds in our gardens. We have been growing, rotating, and amending these small beds for several years. I HATE them! Do what you will and rely on your own experience, but when the spring rains come and come and come by the time the soil is dry enough to work it is so compacted I want to scream. Andy hoes shallowly believing that’s all it takes to pop in our little lettuce plants. I’m out there hacking away to get as deep as I can to give them a chance before the NEXT rains…! Keeping a layer of mulch on over winter and until we’re ready to plant helps. Using a broadfork helps. But give me a good cover crop of winter rye out in the gardens and patience to wait till it’s dry enough to work it into the soil for the best soil ever. We had a horrible time with loss of lettuce plants in those raised beds until we finally diagnosed it as compaction and the inability of the plants to take up the needed nutrients (not a disease that it appeared to have). I just love it when Gene is proven right … again!

    Jan, what you are talking about with your raised beds is just what I address in my work with managing cover crops. I have a blog at that further expands on my cover crops and garden plan videos. I have followed and been influenced by Gene’s rantings since the ’70’s. Cover crops, particularly winter rye, does wonders for the soil and you don’t need a tiller, or a roller/crimper. Small scale market growers are changing the face of agriculture and they need new ways of doing things. The rye can be cut at pollen shed and kept there as mulch, or grown out to seed and you have the seed, straw, and stubble that can readily be planted into. You could also plant oilseed radish in the fall, as Roof heard about. You would have to plant that earlier than rye, late August or early September. It will generally winterkill in January. Until then you can harvest it to add to your potroast or use in fermenting.

I could write at least a couple books on my experiences in agriculture for the last 35 years and especially the last 28 working for SCS/NRCS. Prior, I worked as an agronomist and technical salesman selling seeds and chemicals at the Andersons in Maumee, Ohio.

We are full time farmer. My wife gave up her job in the city 12 years ago at age 35 to stay home to raise kids and cattle. She can wrestle calves and hogs with the best of them. We practice no-till in our pastures and intensive rotational grazing inter-seeding and harrowing in forage seeds as needed.

I am not offended at all by some of the comments here about my agency. I have made some of the same comments and suggestions to the highest levels of the government to try to offer some constructive criticism and get us back on track as the technical agency that made us great.

Technical assistance and the knowledge of farming is what made the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) what it was at the height of its greatness. We are now evolving into a program based agency instead of a technical based agency. Part of this process has been due to the same thing going on in our population. The number of farmers I see now in NRCS is about the same percentage as in the general population.

I go to a meeting with 100 NRCS employees now and 2 of us are farmers. Yes, we have some really great employees left in our technical centers but I have seen most of the best of us retire. The brain drain for the agency was extensive in the 1990’s and institutional knowledge was not passed on to enough employees at a time when we really needed to.

I began my career as a drainage specialist in West Central Ohio for SCS. I was hired to design drainage tile, ditches, surface drains and erosion control structures to help facilitate a new trend at the time, no-till. No-till gained a lot of steam in the 1980’s and 1990’s for several reasons. One had nothing to do with erosion. No-till saves time. A lot of time. Many farmers have custom spraying done now. I have some farmers brag to me that with no-till, they can farm 3 months out of the year now, farm the government 5 months and spend the other 4 months in Florida! I will reserve my comments about this mentality except to say that it is a popular one.

I am seeing many more Fall tilled fields in the last 3 years. Long term no-till has not lived up to the yield potential hype. Farmers are looking at the bottom line more now with crop prices so high and looking for maximum yields. Compaction in no-till is so bad because the fields warm up more slowly in the Spring, sometimes a month later. This can really hurt corn yields. as farmers need to get out as early as possible. I manage a county with numerous 500 horsepower tractors. They can ruin a wet field in no time creating years of compaction related issues.

Weed pressure has increasing dramatically with no-till and reliance on GMO crops. Palmer Amaranth, lambsquarters and a dozen other weeds are not affected by glyphosate anymore. Some scientists feel we can mutate our way toward food security.

In order to avoid ecological disasters and major food shortages in the future, we need to get back to basic soil stewardship principles. We need more lengthy crop rotations, cover crops, hay in rotation, and to give up the monocropping farming we are doing today. This will be a hard sell until we see a widespread crop failure. It is coming if one studies history as we have been down a similar path before.

Agriculture is changing rapidly the last half dozen years as more farmers retire. The big farmers are getting much bigger but there has been a resurgence in new and beggining farmers on a much smaller scale that I am beginning to work with. Grazing is becoming much more popular as well. I expect the largest farmers to continue to no-till to save time with even larger equipment destroying soil structure in the process. And, I expect to see many more lawsuits filed as chemical and pollen drift lands on smaller organic farms and local food plots.

I thought this post may throw a few cats amidst a multitude of pigeons! Good on you Gene for highlighting it.

I am (and not because I am lazy or anything like it) more of a fan of lesser-till farming than no-till or multi-till. I am more concerned that Govt orgs, farmers, home practitioners and everyone else appears to want a set of rules or a constant code of practice that ‘everybody’ needs to adhere to and at all times. This is just exactly what is not desirable nor beneficial. What actually is wanted and needed is that each steward of the land assesses what their soil/acreage requires for whichever crop or purpose they are intending it for and then proceed accordingly. It is only in this way can we really and truely be attuned to the land we love and live on and do not look for answers in some book, Governmental regulation or ivory towered post grad with no dirt under their fingernails for the solution. That way is a cop out. If we wish to live this type of life then we are accountable and responsible for not only the land, livestock and flora but also for those who depend on us and those who follow us in years to come and the only way this can happen is if we look, listen, think and sense what is required now and then act upon that feedback.

Sorry if this seems so ‘out-there’ or quasi-religious. It isn’t meant that way, just that as guardians/users of the land we need to understand it better and come to our own methods of rectifying the situation. If that requires several passes with a huge tractor so be it but, equally, if it means just forking over by hand or simply mulching then that is equally an acceptable method. Let the soil and land tell us what is needed and not some one-thing fits all doctrine so easily spouted out by all and sundry.

Cheers and a happy and safe holiday break to all from NZ. Especial greetings and thanks Gene to you and your wife. I enjoyed your posts and books and have utilised and absorbed them for many years and also have enjoyed and learned much from the many respondants to your blogs. I thank you one and all and wish you all well for the future.

Take care.

I kind of tarred NRCS with a wide brush. There are those like Jim Snyder and I appreciate what he had to say. But-he is also farming in his spare time! I was speaking from more of a broad agency policy standpoint which I think is influenced by factors other than the art and science of farming.

I’m a huge fan of Gene and basically agree with the post and its conclusion that everyone needs to have a bigger hand in producing their food. But in its “contrariness” I’m afraid some things were a little oversimplified for me. A few considerations.. Sorry if some of these were covered by previous posters..

It may not be reasonable to consider one demonstration of soil infiltration at a meeting as evidence that refutes years of replicated research. On the most basic level, we know that tillage aerates the soil, which increases the activity of organisms that break down organic matter. And among other things, organic matter causes soil aggregates to form which are a factor in the soil’s structure, infiltration, etc., etc. Now for the farmer/gardener that employs cover crops, compost, or other methods; yes, soil organic matter/structure/function can remain high or improve with tillage.

The reasons a no-till soil could decline in infiltration or show an increase in compaction are innumerable, as J. Snyder pointed out. Just poor timing of field operations alone will destroy the soil structure. I’d put my money on those things before I said the reason more fields pond, more creeks flood, and phosphorous in surface water is increasing is because we aren’t putting plows in the ground. I don’t think that is what Gene meant to say, but that’s what it sounded like. Can no-till be done badly? Of course. Can it be done exceptionally well, even organically? Yes. Same can be said of small-scale and conventional farming. I just want to make sure we separate the method of no-till and the benefits it might convey, from the over-all system in which it’s employed, good or bad.

On a bit of a tangent, I’d bet the ever increasing phosphorous in surface water has something to do with our agricultural system’s use of the mineral. It is mined in Florida then spread across the US first as fertilizer on crops, then as manure from animals fed those crops. That phosphorous from Florida doesn’t all end up in our food. Our soils hold what they can, and then it has to go somewhere.

I’m sure Gene understands more about these things than I ever will. One of my favorite sayings came from a post of his not long which said deep tillage is “an admission of defeat by modern farming.” I’d say modern farming has many other defeats it should just admit to, but I also wouldn’t want to over-simplify things and imply no-till is just another one of the tools of big agriculture that we need to move away from. I for one really enjoyed the no-till veggies from my garden last year. Maybe we need to focus on no-till’s problems, or the problems with the systems it’s used in, in order to make it better. I realize that’s not very contrary, and it’s maybe a little naive.

Thanks for the wonderful posts though Gene. As Jim does, I look forward to reading every one of them, and usually find myself re-thinking the way I approach things after.

I am both embarrassed and relieved to hear this news. Embarrassed because I have justified my very low-level field labor position at a major wheat breeding company partially by saying that the behemoth mega-company that owns us is helping farmers by trying to pioneer new ways of minimizing tillage, and I thought (with very little personal exposure–it hasn’t caught on around here as well yet as other places) that no-till would at least give agriculture a little time to figure out a better fix before the food supply just implodes from over tillage and erosion.
I am relieved because I didn’t exactly want that to be true, because I actually agree with Gene about the necessity for individuals to own up to their responsibility to produce their own food, and because the degree to which no-till is dependent on chemical applications is at least as bad, if not worse than conventional tillage methods. We live a somewhat paradoxical life. Organic gardening at home with one eye on buying several acres and expanding to a truck-patch operation while simultaneously working in research for the great system. But such is the state of being an American, I suppose. In many ways, you have to buy your way out of the monetary system, which is ironic and more and more hilarious the older I get.

I think it’s a long stretch to go from reduced water infiltration to “no-till is no-good.”

Yea, you can do “no till” wrong. As others have pointed out, conventional no-till is the brain child of Monsanto, because Roundup-Ready GM seed combined with liberal applications of herbicide is what is sold as “no till” these days.

Even without ploughing and harrowing, conventional no-till requires multiple passes of equipment, increasing compaction without the loosening of ploughing and harrowing. I’m not surprised water infiltration is reduced in such cases.

Rather, why don’t you look at the work the Rodale Institute has been doing with cover crops and a crimper-roller? You put the roller-crimper on the front and a drill on the back, and you end up with seeded, mulched field in one pass of equipment. The mulch suppresses enough weeds that you can hand-weed or lightly cultivate the result.

Hi Gene – I look forward to each of these posts and hope to meet you someday. One of my friends Dave Owens said he has sheared your sheep for you. Maybe I can come down with him someday.
I started my career with the Soil Conservation Service in West Central Ohio north of Dayton in 1983. I now manage a county in Michigan as a District Conservationist. I was deeply concerned when we changed out name to NRCS in 1995 and took away ‘soil’ from our name as it took away our priority as an agency in my opinion. Things have never been quite the same since.
In the first couple years of my career, I felt we were being brainwashed by Dow and Monsanto into thinking no-till was the cure all for erosion and water quality issues. I finally asked one of the training teams if we were being trained to be soil conservationists or chemical salesmen. Training for no-till slacked off considerably after that!

From my observations working in 4 states including Ohio, California, Virginia and Michigan is that no-till has the following issues:

1) it has allowed planting of row crops and intensified agriculture on land that should have stayed in forages and pasture
2) compaction is horrendous in some soil types as huge equipment is run on land that is too wet with poor drainage that gets worse each year creating more runoff
3) I have seen sheet, rill and gully erosion under thick corn residue
4) too much mono cropping in no-till with continuous corn and corn-soybean rotations being the norm
5) the elimination of length crop rotations
6) many tons of manure is spread on no-till land allowing nutrients to enter the atmosphere from not being incorporated and creating major runoff issues
7) has helped to create mega farms, eliminated many rural communities and hastened the demise of small family farms and local economies

I could go on and on……

Gardens are not really farms although I have often said a farm is really just a big garden. No-till works well in raised bed gardens where compaction is minimized.

I will have much to write about after retirement as you have Gene but have to watch what I say now for obvious reasons! I can say that I am a small farmer and do not participate in any USDA NRCS or FSA cost share or loan programs. I raise grassfed beef on healthy pastures rotated intensively with no runoff or water quality issues. My soil is never bare for longer than a week. I farm the way we did prior to 1940 with antique equipment. I use no chemicals and fertility is brought in with purchased hay from small local natural farmers.

    I am relieved and edified to find others whose experience is like mine, especially Budd Shepherd and Jim Snyder. You guys say it better than I did. I know this is a controversial issue and the last word is not in, but surely the powers that be should start paying attention to what we are saying. Maybe they are. Maybe this is what is behind the new regs that are supposed to be coming out.
    David Koprika. I doubt I will ever change the name of Holy Shit precisely because the “good taste” that finds such a title offensive is what is culturally influencing so many people from being willing to give shit a chance to do what nature wants it to do: enrich soil. I think that so many people refuse to consider it as a soil amendment because they think shit is something repulsive, certainly not fit for a book title. Gene Logsdon

I do a lot of no-till planting for my neighbors. I have a couple observations.
1. The people at NRCS (or whatever it is called presently) are not making their living from farming. They go to seminars and they do studies and they generally have a good time with other people’s money and they think they know a lot. Plus, the have the force of government to back them up.

2. People farm to fit the programs. If NRCS is giving out money for no-till, we no-till because it makes you look good to be co-operative with NRCS and because we like to experiment and if you can make no-till work it would be a wonderful money saving option and it is free money from the Gubment.

3. You have to use your head. The NRCS does studies and they spend money but they may not actually know what they are talking about. So you have to figure out how to take advantage of the technology and the benefits of NRCS money but not have a decrease in crop yields. Individual small farmers make these ideas work and then the BIG guys and the NRCS take the ideas and sometimes make them work and sometimes not…

5. The no-till programs were not supposed to be about hardware only. To properly do no-till you need a three or four crop rotation and cover crops to break up soil compaction and have good weed control. I’ve heard a lot of stories about successful no-till. But, I’ve also heard a lot about “mono-cropping.” Just because NRCS says something or because you see puddles in no-till fields from people using no-till without rotations or not having a long term plan, does not mean the practice is a bad idea. (Or a good idea for everyone)

No-till in practice is a lot different than in theory. The people I plant for use me when they don’t have time to work the ground, want to go on vacation, the ground is too wet for conventional tillage, they are getting NRCS money to do it.

I don’t think no-till has worked well on our farm because it is so hard to use complimentary rotations and we have cold, wet, easily compacted soils. But, minimum tillage works very well.

When we bought a no-till corn planter I asked a friend in South Dakota about it and he asked me how else one would plant 1000 acres of corn in a week.
I have fields that have been no-tilled to wheat and oats for several years. They are hard as a rock. After two years of annual ryegrass they work up a lot easier.

The no-till planter and the no-till drill work very very well in minimal tillage situations. I personally use them to cut the number of tillage passes and because they do some tillage on their own.

Over the past few years I have developed a few opinions…

Piggy backing on what Betty said above, though I’m a little skeptical of “to till”, erosion is only one of the arguments for “no till.” How would anyone be surprised by a “finding” that tilled soil absorbs water better? This doesn’t seem like much of a development or anything a “no till” person would argue with. It also is not fatal to “no till” even on the absorption issue in that there may be other controls to prevent run off.

WOW! I remember reading Genes views on tillage versus no tillage a while back. Records of soil tillage go back thousands of years including biblical records we can read in Genesis. Tillage has been the mainstay of one of the most productive and least destructive eras of agriculture and that is ( I believe) through the 19 century and the early part of the 20th century. society had the great advantage of new technological advances in farm machinery that assisted the farmer in his work. the tractor, the baler. What, is that it? essentially yes, The tractor is the most significant farming tool of the modern age, all other machines such as plows, cultivators, etc were already in existence. the new ones are used to cover more ground because of the increased horsepower of a tractor. Of course there is the newer method of fertilizer and manure ground injection that is used because of the no till methods but according to the latest findings maybe this method does not work due to soil compaction which no till does not eliminate. I was watching the agricultural forum with a senate committee in Canada just this morning before I went to work and they touched on this subject of no till. the no till advocate suggested that they observed increased soil fertility over the years since the introduction of no till as well as less use of chemical fertilizers. Although I believe tillage of the soil is still the best way to go it may be possible that in certain soil conditions no till may have advantages and it may be up to the farmer to decide what is the best practice for their location. If it were not for the organic movement and people like Gene speaking out about poor farming practices I believe we as a society would be in far worse shape than we already are. I notice the U.S. government as well as the Canadian government are trying desperately to bring people back to small farms and agriculture in general and to learn sound farming practices that we have set aside. I see a shift but it is a slow shift to turning back to ” the good old days”. Gene, I have a request about the title of your book “Holy Shit”, would you consider a revised title so I can buy it and place it on my book shelf?

    David, How about buying the book and, if the title offends you, make a book cover from a nice scrapbooking paper (or even an old grocery sack)?

I no till my raised beds. Each fall I use a broad fork and loosen the soil down about 14 inches and top the rotting straw mulch with ripe compost. Then in the spring, I broad fork it again and put on a fresh coat of compost. Using a rake to scratch up a seed bed and remove the larger debris that hasn’t rotted, I’m ready to plant. I hand weed and mulch with straw for weed control.

What I don’t like about no-till is that we are replacing tillage with chemicals and herbicides and I am not sure that is a good thing.

Like Cindy, I don’t use chemicals in my garden either, so have always tilled in the fall and then done some more light spading in the spring. I’ve always been concerned I was harming the little fungi strands in the soil which are supposed to be beneficial to the roots? That part of no-till always made sense to me–that it wasn’t good to destroy the beneficial fungi and insects. How does this fit in?

I’m sure that’s the case with conventional no-till methods. However, I’ve found that by letting the cover crop grow to maturity and laying it down with a sickle as mulch or for compost material, my soil has been improved in my garden. I show how to manage cover crops with hand tools in this way in my DVD Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden. The roots have maximum biomass and compost right back in place. Conventional no-till methods, if I understand correctly, don’t let the cover crop grow to maximum biomass before it is killed with an herbicide. There are no chemicals involved in my methods.

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