If you grow corn, soybeans, wheat or any other commodity grains, you’ve likely had some contact with no-till production systems.
The no-till model has rapidly increased in popularity over the past few decades, primarily because on-farm applications and research have shown that it has a significantly positive impact on soil health, water quality and energy costs.
No-till systems are also a huge step forward in addressing some of the environmental issues associated with production agriculture, such as fertilizer runoff and soil erosion.
No-till requires the use of cover crops, which offer so many benefits to the soil — nutrient fixation, increased organic matter, improved water infiltration, and weed suppression, to name a few — that it’s not extreme to say that every farmer in the United States should be utilizing them.
No-till also allows beneficial microbial and fungal communities in the soil to remain undisturbed for extended periods of time, allowing them to strengthen and function freely.
It prevents the loss of organic matter in the soil, a fickle resource that provides a stable, slow-release form of nutrients, reduces compaction, increases water holding capacity, and helps improve soil tilth and aggregation.
It’s worth mentioning that not all tillage is necessarily bad, and it’s possible that one would not see a significant difference in soil health between a field that is in continuous no-till and one that is tilled every five to six years, but it is certainly true that the trend toward no-till practices is a good thing for our agricultural system.
But here’s the catch — farmers who practice no-till conventional methods provide all of the aforementioned benefits to soils, crops, water and even surrounding communities, but are they getting paid for it?
If you’re a conventional no-tiller in a commodity grain market, chances are you’re getting the same price per bushel for your corn as everyone else. There are very few, if any, markets offering a premium for no-till practices.
However, there is one market that has grown every year since its inception and can offer two to three times the price per bushel of conventional commodities. That is the certified organic market.
A no-till farmer who wants to continue abstaining from tillage and obtain organic certification has a lot of adjustments to make, but the long-term rewards are worth the time and effort.
Without the use of synthetic herbicides to terminate cover crops, specialized equipment such as a roller-crimper or modified cultipacker may be necessary.
Weed control techniques may require a cover crop seeded at a heavier rate, and windows of opportunity for fieldwork throughout the season can be slightly shorter.
But once you understand the process on your own farm, you can use what you’ve learned to scale up and build a successful organic no-till system, becoming more profitable and well positioned for the future.
There are still plenty of issues that need to be worked out with the organic no-till system that we’ll cover in another article, but the innovative practices and spirit that no-till farmers are bringing to the table are exactly what are required to make no-till organic a more widespread production system.
Some farmers in the Northeast and Midwest have already cracked the code and are farming as much as 7,000 acres of no-till organic commodity crops.
These farmers offer proof that the system works under their unique conditions. We need to make it work under every condition and in every region of the country. For that to become a reality, we need farmers everywhere to try it.
Contrary to popular belief, being certified organic doesn’t have to mean using more tillage. But it does require the ability to take risks, keep an open mind, and come up with creative solutions.
Consider planting a dense cover crop this fall and putting a small plot into an organic no-till trial. We’re here to help you every step of the way.
Sam Malriat is the lead organic crop consultant at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Farmers can reach Sam at Consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or 610-684-1416.