Things to think about when considering reduced tillage
When you do find a farmer using reduced tillage, ask them about how it’s working and pick their brain. Build a relationship. Don’t try to repeat what they are doing, but learn from it.
There has been a lot of interest in how to transition to a reduced till system. I asked Anthony Bly, Extension Soils Field Specialist from South Dakota State University, to share his thoughts not only from a research point of view, but as someone who has been through it on his own farm. We started by talking about how he knows that reduced tillage systems work in the Northern Plains from both the science and on-farm perspectives. I’ll share our conversation with his input from South Dakota and mine from North Dakota:
We know reducing tillage is possible because we can look around and see it working. In South Dakota, there is at least one farm in every county where reduced till practices are working well as part of a system. I’d agree that it’s the same for North Dakota. When you do find a farmer using reduced tillage, ask them about how it’s working and pick their brain. Build a relationship. Don’t try to repeat what they are doing, but learn from it.
The local research also exists for reduced till systems in the Northern Plains — there is plenty of information showing yield response, or more importantly return on investment, for different tillage systems, along with soil moisture and temperature data throughout the growing season. Find that information at NDSU or SDSU — you can also look online at the SDSU iGrow, South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, and NDSU Soil Health webpages or YouTube channels. Attend soil health events and get as much information as you can.
If you want to transition to a reduced tillage system, it’s important to start the year prior to when you plan to plant directly into residue. Getting an even spread of residue the year prior, along with leaving at much residue as you can standing and off the ground is critical. Turn the chopping head off when combining corn, cut wheat high if you can or use a stripper head. At the same time, make sure the residue spread is even out the back of the combine.
Cover crops can help with the transition to reduced tillage because they can help manage moisture, and they can increase the time a living root is in the soil to build aggregation, which then helps with water movement into the soils and trafficability.
One of the best pieces of advice Anthony gave was to try reducing tillage or any new practice on enough acres that if it succeeds, you can see it working elsewhere on the farm. But if it fails, it only hurts enough that you remember it, but not too much that it ruins you financially.
Anthony has participated on reduced tillage panels for both the virtual DIRT workshop and also the Soil Talk Tuesday program. Those discussions were recorded and we will be releasing those recordings in February. So, be on the lookout at ndsu.edu/soilhealth.
Abbey Wick is an Extension soil health specialist at North Dakota State University.