The current energy crunch and the resulting ripple effects throughout both urban and rural economies should encourage farmers to take another look at the benefits of using continuous no-till systems.

Continuous no-till systems require less of your time, labor, fuel and machinery hours than conventional tillage systems.

The amount of diesel fuel burned in your operation is a direct indicator of how much field time you are spending in a tractor. The hour meter on your tractor can reflect up to a $1,000 per day cost to do tillage.

Using a 200-horsepower tractor, we can break that down into actual machinery costs using horsepower hour charges, fuel and labor costs.

Tractor Costs

Long-term tractor rental rates run from 15 to 17 cents per horsepower hour per hour. A 200-horsepower tractor would cost $30 to $34 dollars per hour to just be in the field doing anything.

That 200-horsepower diesel engine under full load pulling a tillage implement will burn 10 to 12 gallons of fuel per hour. At a projected spring cost of $3.25 per gallon, that computes to fuel costs of $32.50 to $39 per hour. The cost of an operator to drive the tractor will be around $10 per hour.

For each meter hour, add $32 for the tractor, $36 for diesel fuel and $10 for the operator for a total cost of $78 per hour. That adds up to $1,092 for a 14-hour day in the field doing tillage that some farmers are choosing not to do, and getting along very well without.

Conventional Vs. No-Till

Let's take a look at the costs for 160 acres of corn stalks being planted to soybeans using continuous no-till versus conventional tillage. We'll use a 30-foot-wide disc, a 45-foot field cultivator and a 90-foot-wide sprayer boom for comparison purposes, all being pulled by that same 200-horsepower tractor.

Tillage on 160 acres of corn stalks discing at 5 mph with a 30-foot-wide disc will require 8.8 hours covering 18 acres per hour. The tractor is pulling under maximum load, so the charge is $78 per hour. The per-acre cost is $4.29 per acre.

That primary tillage pass will require a secondary tillage pass with a field cultivator to smooth the soil surface and prepare the seedbed. Pulling a 45-foot-wide field cultivator at 5 mph will require 5.9 hours covering 27 acres per hour. The tractor is pulling under maximum load, so the charge is $78 per hour. The per-acre cost is $2.88, making the total cost for two trips for seedbed preparation $7.17 per acre.

A primary tillage pass made with a 15-foot disc chisel/ripper at 4 mph will require 22 hours covering 7.3 acres per hour. Again, the tractor is pulling under maximum load, so the charge is $78 per hour. The cost per acre is $10.73, upping the total cost of the three trips for seedbed preparation to $17.90 per acre.

We will use current costs for herbicides purchased for the no-till comparison. To burn down the field with 16 ounces of a generic glyphosate, the cost would be $4.50 if the product costs $36 per gallon. Adding a half pint of 2,4-D LV6 for glyphosate-resistant winter annuals would cost $1.20 using $19 per gallon for cost. Total herbicide cost is $5.70 per acre.

Spraying a burndown herbicide on 160 acres with a 90-foot boom traveling at 8 mph will require 1.8 hours covering 88 acres per hour. The tractor under 3/4 load would burn about 8 gallons per hour for a cost of $0.29 per acre.

Using the continuous no-till system, the tractor cost is 36 cents per acre and the labor cost on 160 acres for 1.8 hours is 12 cents per acre. Total cost per acre for chemical application is $0.77. Total cost for seedbed preparation is $6.47.

The total cost for burndown is $6.47 per acre, and you have it done in less than 2 hours. You will have many extra hours left in the day to burn down more fields or plant a previously burned-down field.

Cost and Time of Seedbed Preparation on 160 Acres Using Conventional Tillage and No-Till.

Conventional Tillage (3 Trips)

Discing -- $4.29
Cultivator -- $2.88
Deep Ripper -- $10.73
Total Cost Per Acre -- $17.90
Hours -- 37

Conventional Tillage (2 Trips)

Discing -- $4.29
Cultivator -- $2.88
Total Cost/Acre -- $7.17
Hours -- 15


Glyphosate -- $4.50
2,4-D -- $1.20
Chemical Application -- $0.77
Total -- $6.47
Hours -- 2

A savings of 70 cents per acre and using 20% of the time that a conventional system uses seems like a good business move.

Fuel Savings

Using an average 11 gallons of diesel fuel burned per hour, we'll look at the total cost in diesel fuel burned on 160 acres of corn stalks for the three approaches to seedbed preparation.

A three-tillage trip program uses 404 gallons of fuel for seedbed preparation on 160 acres, a total fuel cost of $1,313. A two-tillage trip program uses 162 gallons of fuel on the same 160 acres, a total fuel cost of $526.50.

The continuous no-till program uses 20 gallons of fuel on the same amount of acres, a total fuel cost of $65. This is about 5% of the cost of the three-trip tillage program and 12.5% of the cost of the two-trip tillage program.

Fuel Cost Savings for Seedbed Preparation on 160 Acres Using Conventional Tillage vs. No-Till Systems.

Conventional Tillage (3 trips)

Gallons -- 404
Cost -- $1,313
Savings -- $0

Conventional Tillage (2 trips)

Gallons -- 162
Cost -- $526.50
Savings -- $786.50


Gallons -- 20
Cost -- $65
Savings -- $1,248

The 2006 Crop Residue Management survey in the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (LENRD), which encompasses five counties in northeast Nebraska, showed that 48% of the soybeans planted into cornstalks were in a continuous no-till system. Let's use the LENRD as an example.

In the LENRD, 40% of the soybeans were planted into corn stalks using a mulch-till or two-pass system, and about 12% were planted using the three-pass tillage system.

On the 1,137,500 acres of corn stalks in the survey, of which 52% was the two-pass tillage program, you could expect to save more 525,000 gallons of fuel in seedbed preparation costs alone by switching these acres to continuous no-till systems.

Given that 12% of those acres were a three-pass system using 400 gallons per 160 acres, it's likely that over 600,000 gallons of diesel fuel could be conserved annually by transitioning those acres to continuous no-till.

Total Cost Of Fuel And Seedbed Preparation On 160 Acres

Conventional Tillage (3 trips) -- $2,864

Conventional Tillage (2 trips) -- $1,147.20

No-till -- $1,035.20

If you look at the pump price of diesel fuel and gas now, demand for the product explains the high price of diesel fuel, some say. If Lower Elkhorn NRD farmers could put over 600,000 gallons of fuel back into the supply side by not using it, would it impact the price of petroleum at the pump? It certainly couldn't hurt.

This is just a look at the fuel usage alone. If you add in the fact that continuous no-till increases rainfall infiltration, which tremendously reduces runoff and soil erosion, you definitely have a package that is worth reviewing.

Whether you are currently farming or a landlord renting your land out, the concept of energy conservation through transitioning to continuous no-till systems on our farmland has the potential to positively affect all of us, both urban and rural.