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Ten critical steps to no-till adoption

4th Sep 2016

The information below comes from a longer piece of work by a no-till consultant from Paraguay.  The blog below brings together the abridged highlights, but if you want to read the full article click here (its well worth a read).

Adoption of a no-till system cannot be accomplished without planning beforehand and in order to be successful, the system needs to follow certain steps.

The most common reason for failure with no-till systems on farm is lack of knowledge on how to do it. As farmers we need to acquire the basic knowledge before attempting to try the technology on-farm, and we also need to plan the change well in advance.

The rise of no-till systems

After a slow start in the 1960s to the 1980s no-till has taken off and today there are more than 100 million hectares under this technology. Pioneer farmers in the early days had little information available on how to do it, the manufacturing industry had little experience on how to build appropriate machines and only a few herbicides were available to control weeds.  Today the situation has changed so that experience, knowledge, research results, machines and adequate herbicides at reasonable prices are available to farmers to allow them to achieve a no-till system that works.

In order for the system to be successful, there needs to be an adequate level of knowledge and understanding. There is a tendency to initiate no-till by buying a nice new drill, however, according to the author, buying the drill is step 7 out of 10 (rather than step 1).

So what are these 10 steps? They are explained in more detail below.

1.Improve your knowledge about the system, especially weed control

Every person that wants to succeed in implementing this system needs to learn as much as possible. To change from conventional tillage to no till requires careful planning at least 1 year before implementation.  The last tillage operation before changing over has to be performed in such a way that the surface of the fields is level. Consideration is also needed in terms of previous crop, including its harvest to leave enough of a residue on the surface, crop rotation, spreading out of trash, and starting no till after a crop in which god weed control can be achieved.

No-till is a completely different production system and one of the biggest challenges can be weed control.  In terms of knowledge this means learning about the different weeds, herbicides, using and maintaining spraying equipment and crop rotation.

Learn from others who are doing it already, agronomists, researchers and wherever you can find useful tips!

2. Analyse your soil

Routine soil inspection and analysis with the aim of a balanced nutrient and pH status is a crucial element to achieve good results in no-till.  Nutrient deficiencies have to be corrected before starting no-till.

3. Avoid soils with poor drainage

It is well known that no-till doesn’t work on badly drained soils, or if soils suffer from waterlogging.  If your fields tend to lie wet, invest in an adequate drainage system before starting no-till.

4. Level the soil surface

Whatever the reason for an uneven surface the soil has to be levelled before starting no-till. If this is not done, you will soon realise that most no-till seeding machines do not perform well in uneven soils, resulting in a bad stand because the seed deposited in the lower parts are left on the soil surface or planted to shallow for good germination and on ridges the seeding depth will be too deep. Good planting practices require seeds evenly spaced at an even depth and this requires a level soil surface.

5. Eliminate soil compaction issues before starting

After many years of tillage with the same implements, pans can develop. Starting no-till without breaking up soil compaction will result in poor yields and low profits. Therefore wherever compaction is present, it needs to be removed before going into a no-till system.   Once using a no-till system, the best way to avoid compaction is to produce the maximum available amount of soil cover, use green manure cover crops and good crop rotations so that roots and biological activity as well as earthworms and insects etc loosen the soil resulting in biological soil preparation. Good soil cover is also essential to maintain higher moisture content on the soil surface and this will result in better penetration of cutting elements of planting equipment as well as the roots.

6. Produce the largest possible amount of mulch cover

Almost all advantages of the no-till system come from the permanent cover of the soi and only a few from not tilling the soil. For those implementing the system, aim to maximise biomass production in a no-till system, through choosing crop varieties with higher biomass than others.

The benefits of large amounts of mulch on the surface are:

  • Good weed suppression
  • Positive effects on soil moisture (especially important in drier areas)
  • Favourable effects on soil temperatures

All this results in improved chemical, physical and biological soil conditions, improving soil fertility and yields.  It is important to also remember to not just look at the amount of mulch but how it is distributed as well.

7. Buy a no-till drill

Only after having met all previous requirements mentioned above should you go out and buy a drill.  All too often it is seen that some farmers hear about the no-till technique get excited about it, go to the shop and buy a no-till drill and start the system without considering the previous six steps that have been described above.  This leads to a failure of the system and the failure is often blamed on the machine or technique.

When choosing a no-till drill make sure that the machine chosen is adequate for your soil conditions.  Again finding other farmers using a specific drill and seeing it working helps as well.

8. Start on 10 percent of your farm

No-till is a completely new production system.  When changing from conventional to no-till the whole system has to be changed. It does not help to change the different components one by one because then it will take years before the complete system is adopted. With so many changes taking place at once this is a challenge for everyone, even for excellent farmers with many years of experience and good management skills.  Therefore the recommendation is to start small and not change the system on the whole area of the farm at once.

Before starting gather knowledge from other farmers who are already doing it. Don’t start until you have enough basic knowledge of the system. Start on about 10% of the farm to gain experience and avoid failures. Depending on the confidence of the farmer, it could be expanded to 30-5% in the second year and only after mastering the system should it be increased to 100% of the farm. 

To start on the whole farm area in the first year is a very risky venture which may result in poor crop establishment, failure in adequate weed and pest control and in significant financial losses.

The rule is therefore to start small and increase the area under no-till as a farmer masters the system and is able to solve new issues that appear.

9. Use crop rotation and green manure cover crops

Bare fallow is the worst thing that can happen to a soil. Living plants and roots, if possible all year round are important to change from soil degrading production systems to new systems that improve soil fertility.

The aim should be to establish an optimum rotation from the point of view of yield, weed suppression, amount of residues left on the surface, economics and risk management. When this stage is reached farmers can sell their tillage equipment.

In a no-till system crop rotation is much more important than in conventional tillage and a diverse rotation should always be the goal when applying no-till techniques.  The greater the biodiversity, the better no till works. Diversification has to be economic and can be best achieved by the use of crop rotations and green manure cover crops. Cover crops are the missing element in the no-till system in most parts of the world, and managing them is completely different in a no-till system than in a conventional one.

10. Be prepared to learn constantly and watch for new developments

The adoption of no-till is a continuous learning process and even after many years of practising the system there is always something new to learn.

Even with the many millions of hectares of no-tillage being practices by farmers worldwide, it can be said with considerable confidence that knowledge is one of the main constraints to expanded no-till adoption.

Final thoughts

When new technologies are being extended to farmers, the conditions for the utilisation of technology have to be met. It should be taken into consideration that if farmers are to adopt innovations, they must want to, they must know how to and they must be able to follow recommendations.

To read the full paper click here.

Do you agree with the key 10 points? Have you experienced something different?  Let us know what you think!

Source: Derpsch, R (2008), Critical steps to no-till adoption, In: No till farming systems. Goddard, T., Zoebisch, M.A., Gan, Y., Ellis, W., Watson, A. and Sombatpanit, S., Eds 2008 WASWC. p 479 – 495.