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No-till can greatly impact soil health by building soil structure, increasing water holding capacity and infiltration, increasing worm counts, in addition to reducing soil erosion.

However, planning ahead is necessary to make the practice successful. Five things that you want to consider before making the switch to no-till include:

Weed Control

Tillage is no longer an option for weed control, so you’ll have to mainly rely on herbicides to control weeds. This will require you to use burndown herbicides with your pre-emergent herbicide. The burndown herbicide will terminate any weeds that are present and growing while the pre-emergent herbicide will terminate any weeds before they emerge. In order to have successful weed control in a no-till system, you’ll need to make sure to burndown weeds early in the spring when they are small and actively growing. It’s also important to remember that some weeds will become more prevalent in a no-till system and they may be weeds you aren’t used to controlling. For example, winter annuals, such as marestail, are very common in no-till systems but aren’t easily seen in conventional till systems. Weeds like marestail require early burndown applications in the spring to ensure good weed control. 

Planter Setup

You will be planting into a different environment when no-tilling. When you run a tillage tool, it creates the seedbed and then the planter focuses on placing the seed. In a no-till system, you’re creating the seedbed and planting into it at the same time. Proper planter set-up is needed to make sure you have a successful crop establishment.  You may need to replace what you have or add specialized planter parts such as, closing wheels, opening disks, gauge wheels, row cleaners, etc. that are created for a no-till system. It’s important to take the time in the winter and evaluate your planter setup to determine if changes will need to be made.

Fertilizer Placement

In a full tillage system, fertilizer gets incorporated into the ground. With no-till, broadcasted fertilizer gets worked into the ground with moisture. Producers can choose to select different fertilizer sources and methods of placement to ensure adequate nutrient availability to the growing crop. Adding starter fertilizer to your planter is an option to make sure nutrients are available to growing seedlings. Fertilizer placement is something you should consider as you transition to no-till but changing your fertilizer program is not required.

Residue Management

Consider how you are going to manage residue in a no-till system. With tillage, the residue is chopped up and sometimes gone when planting. In no-till, the residue remains, sometimes making the soil colder and wetter. Managing residue actually starts at harvest. Having your combine adjusted to ensure a uniform size and distribution of residue and avoiding the use of a chopping corn head are just a few things that should be considered.

Seed Selection

It’s a good idea to start with soybeans first when looking to make the switch to no-till. Soybeans will be more resilient as you work to make the transition. However, when you make the move to no-tilling corn, select hybrids with higher emergence and vigor scores. Hybrids with higher emergence and vigor scores will have the ability to get out of the ground and through residue quicker, especially under cooler and wetter soil conditions.

No-till is a management practice that takes years to fully implement and there is a learning curve to this new management practice. Get more insights on how to more smoothly transition to no-till from a first-time no-tiller.

Maddy Rabenhorst
Maddy Rabenhorst
Maddy Rabenhorst is a Field Manager for Soil Health Partnership covering South Dakota and North Dakota.