No-till production practices, even with a small yield reduction, offer an economic advantage in most cases over conventional cropping systems.
And then farmers should consider other advantages they get with reduced tillage systems, says Edward Osei, senior research economist at the Texas Institute for Applied Environmental Research at Tarleton State University. He discussed farm level economic impacts of no-till farming at the No-till Oklahoma Conference in Oklahoma City.
“Watch yields,” Osei said. “With no-till, yields will probably increase or maintain (at conventional tillage levels). If farmers hold yields or see just a small reduction with no-till, they still have a profit advantage.
“With a 10 percent decrease in yield, they may see a small reduction in profit.”
He said limiting herbicide passes improve profit potential in no-till situations. “Also, some financial assistance might be available to help with initial no-till adoption. And farm profits will improve over time.”
Osei said fuel costs also play a role in profitability. With higher diesel prices, no-till offers even more advantages over more fuel-dependent conventional tillage methods. “With diesel prices ranging from $1 to $7 a gallon, no-till is always more profitable with stable yields,” he said.
With diesel at $1 per gallon, a 20 percent no-till yield reduction would result in a $16 per acre loss. With higher diesel prices, that trend is reversed.
“With just a small yield penalty from no-till we still get an advantage over conventional tillage,” Osei said. “As yields go up, no-till profits increase.”
He said if yields for no-till are 20 percent less than in conventional, no-till has no advantage. At a 10 percent yield reduction, “no-till is better.
“Farm profits depend on tillage methods. Conservation tillage increases yield variability and yields tend to be better in dry conditions. But yield effects of conversion to no-till remain inconclusive.”
Reduced costs offer a significant advantage to no-till operations. “Crop production costs are lower,” Osei said, “so if we can maintain yield, we increase profit.”
Recent technology advances help, too, he said. “We have better equipment for no-till operation and new (herbicide tolerant) seed varieties.”
The trend for no-till adoption is up. Criteria for conservation tillage include 30 percent cover left after harvest. Conventional tillage leaves less than 15 percent residue and may or may not use a moldboard plow. Using those definitions, Osei said conventional tillage accounts for less acreage than it did 25 years ago. “Overall, U.S. farmers are increasing use of conservation tillage. Soybeans have seen a greater trend than corn and conservation tillage accounts for nearly 40 percent of U.S. soybean acreage. The trend is also up for spring and winter wheat and cotton. Trend for reduced till grain sorghum is up significantly.”
Osei said farmers and society also get other, perhaps less tangible, benefits from no-till systems. “Tillage practices affect water quality and no-till reduces sediment loss.”
He said production costs, commodity prices, crop yields, and cultural practices affect success with tillage systems.