Tilling and plowing is nothing new. In fact, plowing with oxen dates back to at least 3000 B.C.E. However, this ancient technique has also been a major contributor to topsoil erosion, moisture loss, and the impoverishment of soil life and soil structure in general.
If geomorphologist and author David Montgomery is correct in his estimations, 23 billion tonnes of fertile farming soil is lost around the world each year — meaning that all of the world’s farming land could be gone in a mere 150 years. Read on to learn about no-till agriculture and how it could help you to improve your soil and prevent a worldwide food catastrophe.
The Philosophy Behind No-Till Agriculture
The idea for no-till agriculture came from the Regenerative Agriculture movement in the 1970s and the realization that we need to start improving the soil naturally through a radical shift in thinking and practice. The theory is that by maintaining the structure of the soil intact, the topsoil won’t be exposed to the elements. This, in turn, will prevent the problem of topsoil erosion and the large-scale death of beneficial microbes.
No-till agriculture has benefits for greenhouse gas emissions, too — by keeping the soil structure intact, carbon and nitrous oxide are buried deeper and deeper in the soil instead of being released into the air when they rise to the surface through tilling.
Significant Water Savings
In California, where we’re experiencing debilitating drought conditions, no-till agriculture directly addresses the water crisis by improving water filtration and holding more moisture in the soil. Combined with an efficient solar irrigation system, a no-till soil approach could result in significant water savings and a more abundant harvest.
No-Till Soil Techniques
Now that we’ve covered the “why,” let’s take a look at the “how” of no-till agriculture. Far from simply parking the tractor in the garage and calling it a day, no-till soil techniques require a rethinking of the entire process.
Firstly, planting seeds directly in the ground takes specialized equipment, including a no-till tractor or no-till drill. Secondly, strategies are needed to tackle the problem of weeds before and after the harvest. Here are some of the most common approaches to dealing with weeds in no-till agriculture:
Conventional No-Till Weed Techniques
Conventional agriculture typically uses herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers to deal with the challenges of working with nature. With no-till agriculture, the challenge of weeds increases significantly — meaning that conventional growers will tend to use a greater amount of herbicides than they would need to use if they tilled their land.
Organic No-Till Weed Techniques
As we’ve talked about in relation to organic produce, organic farming takes a different approach to tackling the challenges of working with nature. With organic no-till agriculture, flora and fauna become allies rather than foes, but it does take a bit of creative thinking.
- Cover cropping
Used primarily to add more nutrients to the soil naturally, cover crops can help with weed management by effectively taking over all of the available space. As well as providing forage material for livestock, these grass and cereal crops fix nitrogen in the soil and increase the retention of moisture when you trim them down and leave the dried plant matter as a mulch layer.
- Crop Rotation
Before the advent of chemical agriculture, growers maintained the health of their soil and vitality of their crops through a carefully-planned series of crop rotations. With crop rotation, each area of land is cycled through a predefined sequence of cash crops (such as vegetables), cover crops (grasses and cereals), and green manure (usually legumes) to provide soil-based benefits for the crop that follows.
Crop rotation sequences take the needs of each kind of crop into account. For example, a nitrogen-fixing crop is planted before a nitrogen-depleting one to protect against long-term soil depletion. Wheat planted in pea residue and soy planted in wheat residue are two examples of common sequences.
- Free-Range Livestock
Introducing animals into your production system can help with weed control while providing other side-benefits — including meat, manure, and reduced need for chemical inputs. In no-till agriculture, animals such as cows and sheep can mow down your cover crops quickly and cheaply before moving the larger animals on and giving the land a pass with chickens to extract the remaining seeds and bugs.
This kind of set-up requires a carefully thought-out plan to ensure the livestock don’t remain on the land for longer than a few days and appropriate tools to direct-drill the seeds after the animals have gone.
- Weed Mats
A final strategy for no-till soil management is to lay down weed-suppressing mats along the entire length of your field with an implement such as a roller-crimper. Seeds can be direct-drilled into holes along the weed mat so that only the growth of the crop will come through.
Long-Term Gains with No-Till Agriculture
Naturally, any significant change in growing techniques must provide you with long-term gains. An ecological system that doesn’t deliver financially really isn’t “sustainable” in every sense of the word! The benefits of no-till agriculture do take some time, with rewards being seen in five to ten years. However, the rewards and savings can be quite significant:
- 50-80 percent reduction in fuel expenses .
- 30-50 percent reduction in labor .
- 50 percent larger yields .
- 90+ percent reduction in soil erosion 
- Porous soil structure increases water filtration and reduces herbicide runoff .
- Cover crops and livestock provide additional income streams.
While the cost and effort of changing over to no-till might seem like a lot, 25% of American farms were no-till in 2008 (up from 5% in 1988), and a growing number of agriculturalists are discovering the benefits of this novel approach every single year. The movement towards sustainable farming is well underway, and the returns over time make it well worth the effort!
Transform Your Enterprise with Fruit Growers Supply
Established in 1907, Fruit Growers Supply has been working for over 100 years to meet the needs of growers and transport their produce safely to market. Now with our industrial-scale irrigation design and maintenance services, we are well equipped to make your no-till agriculture venture a resounding success.
Contact our team to schedule a free consultation and transform your soil with no-till agriculture today.