Should Long Term No-Till Fields be Tilled? What are the Benefits?

January 3, 2022

No-till has been practiced in the Corn Belt for over 30 years. Within those years, many benefits and a few challenges have been identified for no-till farming. Some of the key benefits and challenges are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Benefits and Challenges of No-till Farming Practices



Helps reduce erosion, preserving topsoil

Compaction or impermeable hard pans

Increased residue helps preserve moisture during drought

Cooler, wetter soils at planting in northern geographies

Improves soil structure and pore formation

Tough to break plant disease cycles

Improves water infiltration into the soil profile

Nutrients tied up in crop residue longer

Improves mass flow of nutrients to growing plants

Residue layers help suppress weed growth

Helps increase rate of soil organic matter formation

Increases soil organism diversity and density

Improves soil health encouraging AMF* growth

*AMF Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi: Fungal network that delivers water and nutrients to developing plants in undisturbed soil.

Benefits of long term no-till practices outweigh some of the challenges; however, there are times when tillage can help “fix” some challenges on no-till ground.

1. Compaction is the biggest struggle most farmers have with no-till systems. Compaction remedies depend on the severity and percent of impairment in the field. Larger compacted areas may benefit from a field-wide tillage operation. Smaller areas, such as traffic patterns or low wet areas, can be isolated and corrected with deep tillage. Regaining water infiltration and soil water holding capacity can help improve plant root structures, nutrient uptake, and yield potential.

2. Cooler, wetter springs can make it tough for crops to emerge evenly in cold soils due to residue reflecting the sun’s rays (Figure 1). Strip-tillage offers the benefits of no-till between the rows and the benefits of precisely placed nutrients in a dark soil strip that warms up quickly in the spring. Emergence is generally quicker and more even in a strip-till agronomic system leading to higher yield potential.

3. Even with good rotation practices, disease cycles can become a problem over time in no-till fields. For disease to develop, spread, and cause yield loss, the right pathogen, a favorable growing condition, and a compatible host must all be present. In many cases, no-till creates a favorable growing condition for pathogen survival due to the preservation of residue. Rotation to a nonhost crop may be an effective management strategy; however, many diseases, such as white mold, can live beyond two crop rotations. Also, important to note, some diseases, such as Goss’s Wilt, can be carried to new fields on infested residue, so it may be imperative to clean equipment prior to leaving the field. Cover crops such as rye, have been used with some success in breaking disease cycles while providing other soil health benefits. When all else fails, burying the residue and inoculum with tillage may be the best solution to avoid future yield losses from diseases. Ultimately, understanding the disease cycle for the pathogen and evaluating circumstances is necessary so that an appropriate strategy may be implemented.

Figure 1. Corn struggling to emerge through residue.
Figure 1. Corn struggling to emerge through residue.

4. Nutrient tie up is another issue, particularly in high yield cropping systems, due to the level of residue accumulated every year. Breaking down residue so that nutrients may be returned to the soil is a priority. Some farmers use cover crops (radishes, turnips, field mustards, kale) to improve soil health and help expedite the breakdown of residue. Others choose to bury the residue via tillage and lose the benefits of no-till.

When facing tillage decisions, check in with your local Channel® Seedsman. They live in your neighborhood and can be a resource to help solve some of the problems you may be facing on your farm.

ALWAYS READ AND FOLLOW PESTICIDE LABEL DIRECTIONS. Performance may vary, from location to location and from year to year, as local growing, soil and weather conditions may vary. Growers should evaluate data from multiple locations and years whenever possible and should consider the impacts of these conditions on the grower’s fields.

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John Goeden

Technical Agronomist