Digging In

Insights from a First Time No-tiller

Insights from a First Time No-tiller

By Maddy Rabenhorst on Thursday, 14 November, 2019

My name is Maddy Rabenhorst, and I was raised on my family’s fourth generation farm in Bristol, South Dakota and now grow corn and soybeans with my husband in southeast South Dakota. It did not take long for us to realize that it is important for us to leave our land in better condition than we found it. It meant we needed to start adopting more sustainable practices and eventually phasing our ground out of a tillage system.

Over the past couple years, we have transitioned to a minimum tillage program, but are planning to switch to 100% no-till over the next ten years and incorporate cover crops across our entire farm. Removing tilling from our management practices has been a longer process than we initially anticipated. After being tilled for many years, our ground expects to be tilled year after year and requires a slow end to that practice. We have also been experiencing high rainfall events the past couple of years which has made it difficult to adopt new practices. 

No-till means not disrupting the soil outside of planting. When soil is in a no-till system, it looks, smells and acts differently than tilled soil. If you have had the opportunity to attend one of our field days and see the rainfall simulator, it gives great insight between the differences in water runoff and infiltration in no-till and tillage systems.A tillage system does not have the water infiltration a no-till system has.

While no-till is better for the soil long-term, it is a work in progress to stop tilling every year. That process will look different for every farmer. The soil craves to be tilled, after all, that is all it has known for many years. Getting out of the tillage cycle takes patience, planning and diligence. Committing to being a no-till operation 10 years from now has been something both my husband and I have had to totally commit to, as we are always having to adjust the way we manage our ground. 

Here are a couple tips from somebody who is still working to transition to no-till. This journey is different for every producer, depending on the soil you are working with:

  • Start slow. Try a few acres on your farm so you are not risking all your acres on a new practice that you do not have much experience with. This allows you to monitor it throughout the growing season and figure out how it will work on your farm.
  • Try no-tilling soybeans first. For first time no-tillers, it might be best to start with soybeans. Corn can be no-tilled as well, but soybeans have more of a defense mechanism and are not quite as particular on seed placement. Corn yields can be greatly affected if seed placement is not correct and since no-tilling requires planting into a different kind of seedbed it may be beneficial to start with soybeans. 
  • Try strip-tilling first. Sometimes, producers are not comfortable switching 100% to no-till. In this case, a practice such as strip-till can be used as part of the transition process. On our farm, our plan is to start no-tilling soybeans and strip-tilling corn. Strip-tilling disturbs the soil less than full tillage which allows for soil structure to be built over time, but still creates a seedbed we are used to planting into. Traditional strip-till machines incorporate fertilizer at the same time the tillage strip is created and can be expensive to purchase. For our farm, we have decided to purchase a more cost friendly option, which is a strip freshener. A strip freshener will allow us to create our tillage strips but we will not be applying fertilizer in the strip. This machine can later be plumbed for fertilizer, but to start the transition process this is an economically friendly way to get into an alternative form of tillage.  
  • Change your mindset. If you are use to tillage, no-till is an entirely different management system. It will be something that you have to consciously think about. 
  • Communicate your change to your retailers. Confirm the correct products are purchased for the new management practice you are going to try. You will need to make sure to discuss with your agronomist how this management system will possibly change your seed, chemical, and fertilizer inputs. 
  • Develop a plan. Take the time to effectively plan and expect challenges. I highly encourage you to start planning early if you decide to transition to no-till. Start planning in the winter months and take time to consider some of the challenges you may face in the spring.

No-till is a management practice that allows the soil to act as the living organism that it is, and while it is a challenge, it is one worth committing to. Over the next couple weeks, I will be deep diving into no-till, what that might look like for your farm, things to consider and how it impacts your soil. I am also hosting a webinar discussing no-till at the end of the month; I hope you register to attend.