With much of the West either “abnormally dry” or in drought conditions, no-till farming advocates say that method could be a way to better utilize the water that’s available.
No-till farming — also called direct-seed farming — is just what it sounds like, growing crops without tilling the soil.
In contrast to traditional farming methods, no-till leaves all of the crop residue — the part of the plant not harvested — on the surface instead of plowed under. The root systems of the plants remain intact, providing soil stability, according to Donald Wysocki, a soil scientist at Oregon State University Extension in Pendleton, Ore.
The crop residue also creates a layer of organic matter that protects the soil from drying out, Stuart Wuest, a soil scientist at the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Pendleton, said.
The organic matter also makes it easier for the water to penetrate the surface of the soil. With traditional tillage practices that leave no crop residue on the field, the soil develops a crust layer after it has been rained on several times, making it hard for water to penetrate, according to Wuest.
In a no-till field, the residue prevents the soil from developing a crust.
The rate at which no-till soils retain water is twice that of tilled soils, Wuest said.
“Tilled soil might take in water at a maximum rate of 1 inch per hour,” he said. “I have seen no-till soil able to take in water at 2 inches per hour.”
The no-till method results in virtually no-runoff because the water is getting into the soil. “In a normal year, there is no runoff,” Wuest said. “The only time we see runoff is rain on frozen soil.”
While Wuest mainly looks at no-till in dryland cropping areas — areas that are not irrigated — no-till works in wetter regions and irrigated areas as well.
According to Wysocki, there is a financial commitment in switching to no-till, because farmers have to purchase new equipment.
Garth Mulkey, a seed crop farmer in Monmouth, Ore., has been using no-till practices since the 1990s on many of his crops, including wheat, perennial ryegrass and chard. He said that while there is an initial investment if farmers decide to switch from conventional practices because they have to buy a $50,000 no-till drill to plant crops, the rest of the equipment is also used in conventional farming.
While Mulkey has not compared irrigation costs between his no-till and conventional crops, he said that he is able to water no-till crops with a larger volume of water at a time than his conventional crops. In turn, he can water his no-till crops less frequently.
“I am quite certain that our no till-crops, on long term no-till ground are more drought-tolerant than conventional grown crops,” Mulkey also said.
The cost of herbicides goes up slightly with no-till, but, according to Mulkey, “not by a large percent.”
Higher herbicides costs are offset by lower fuel and labor costs, according to Wuest.
“(The farmers) are getting good yields and taking less labor and diesel to do it,” Wuest said.
Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association: www.directseed.org/