There's no misunderstanding Bruno Alesii’s advice to no-tillers:
“If you are no-tilling and are happy with it, stay with it. It is the best system around,” Alesii says.
“If you are no-tilling and you’re struggling with it because the soils are too wet or for whatever reason, and you are thinking of going back to conventional tillage, I suggest you give strip-till a try,” he adds.
And, he says, “If you’re not totally convinced that no-till or strip-till is the best way to go, ask yourself if you can afford to leave $10 to $15 per acre on the table because you’ve chosen the wrong system year in and year out. That adds up to real money pretty fast, especially if you’re farming 2,000 to 4,000 acres.”
Alesii served as conservation tillage director for Monsanto Company until retiring. His opinions grew stronger after Monsanto’s Centers of Excellence field trials showed a clear advantage for no-tilling and strip-tilling over conventional tillage.
“These were on-farm, large-scale field research demonstration trials designed to provide side-by-side comparisons of the different tillage systems,” he says. “We had the same soil types, weed control programs, fertilizer programs, seeding rates and other management practices. All those things were standardized.”
The Centers of Excellence provided 5 years of data from sites across the country, including 13 in the Midwest that used a corn and soybean rotation. The research was conducted with the help of local farmers and also third-party consultants who collected the data and wrote summary reports.
The field tests used conventional-tillage, no-tilling, strip-tilling and fast-start (spring planting into a stale seedbed prepared the previous fall). The no-till corn and soybean fields averaged 65% residue coverage, while the strip-till corn/no-till beans averaged 69% coverage. The average coverage of the conventional-till corn and beans was 23%.
Alesii says the conventional-tillage, which he calls “a destructive process,” used a two-pass program, either a deep rip and a disc, or two field cultivation passes.
After 5 years of production, the fields showed definite patterns in the agronomic, environmental and economic data, he says. In summary, according to Alesii:
This includes items such as seed, fertilizer and pest control, as well as hauling and interest expenses. For corn, conventional-tillage input costs averaged $214.22 per acre; fast-start, $211.71; strip-till, $207.59; and no-till, $201.57.
For soybeans, conventional-tillage, wide-row input costs averaged $133.07 per acre; conventional-tillage, narrow-row, $135.56; no-till, wide-row, $116.72; and no-till, narrow-row $119.18.
“For corn, strip-till is definitely cheaper than conventional-till by about $7 or $8 per acre,” Alesii says. “No-till is the best; there is no doubt that no-till will save you more money than any of the other systems, about a $12 or $13 savings per acre. That’s $12 or $13 you have in your pocket every year. Some of you are probably doing better than that.
“For soybeans, it’s even better. Clearly, wide-row and narrow-row soybeans in conventional tillage are much higher in cost than no-till narrow rows and wide rows by about $15 per acre,” he says.
“It used to be said, ‘No-till, no yield.’ I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Alesii notes. “What we are seeing is that strip-till hangs right in there with the conventional tillage systems. With no-till, there is usually a slight drag of about 4 or 5 bushels. We have seen years, though, when no-till can be as bad as 15 to 20 bushels behind; that’s during a wet, cold type spring.
“A lot of folks who went back to conventional tillage thought that was too much of a burden to overcome,” he says. “But if you average it over time, it is not as bad as some people believe. And if you are in that cold, wet, heavy clay soil environment, the way to compensate is to switch to strip-till.”
He adds, “Remember, you already had a cost savings for both no-till and strip-till, anywhere from $8 to $12 per acre, so you still come out ahead. The yields are comparable.”
Alesii also points out that the yield comparisons vary from year to year. One season, strip-till was the best by far and conventional was the worst, he says. The next year, no-till was the best, with strip-till about the same as the conventional. The year after that, conventional was the best, strip-till the worst.
“If you look only at the yield, you will probably make the wrong decision and lose out at the end of the day,” he says. “It looks like conventional-till fields were tops in yield 3 out of 5 years, therefore you should go with conventional tillage. But that’s not the right conclusion, because you also have to look at the production costs.”
“In the end, it is not yield that counts most, its what you take home in your pocket after the harvest,” Alesii says. “What we found in the corn fields is that strip-till and no-till always seem to outpace conventional tillage.”
The 5-year averages for profitability per acre in corn were: conventional tillage, $98; fast-start, $98; no-till, $100; and strip-till, $102.
“If you are just looking at corn, you can say a $2 to $4 per acre advantage for no-till and strip-till is not all that impressive,” Alesii says. “But what we are talking about is a system of no-till or strip-till corn in rotation with no-till soybeans. And that’s the way it should be viewed: a complete rotation.”
In soybeans, the 5-year averages for profitability per acre were: conventional tillage, wide-row, $87; conventional tillage, narrow-row, $89; no-till, narrow-row, $106.
He notes that no-till, narrow-row soybeans will almost always outperform all other systems, including no-till, wide-row soybeans. “So no-till, narrow-row is the way to go. You’re looking at a significant income gain of about $19 per acre. Add the $19 with the $2 to $4 you get with no-till corn, and you can see you’re coming out ahead vs. a conventional program.”
Alessi recommends planting narrow-row rather than wide-row spacing, regardless of the tillage system used. “We’re talking anywhere from 20 inches down to 7.5 inches, versus 30 inches,” he says. “One thing that’s consistent in our trials is that the no-till, narrow-row yields year in and year out either are tied for the lead or have a yield advantage over the other programs.”
Over all locations over the 5 years, narrow rows yielded about one more bushel per acre. “A lot of farmers will tell you they’ve seen a 3-bushel advantage by going to narrow rows,” Alesii says.
“If you look at the whole system of conservation tillage vs. conventional-till corn and soybeans over a period of 5 years, you can see a big difference. With strip-till corn and no-till, narrow-row soybeans, we earned profits of $521 per acre over those 5 years, versus the conventional tillage profit of $468,” he says.
“So you would have lost tens of thousands of dollars if you had picked the wrong system 5 years ago. Regardless of whether its wide-row or narrow-row, you’d still be out a good chunk of change.”
Among the other differences found in the field trials were:
“Here is where strip-till might have the advantage if you are in a cold, wet kind of environment. We’re seeing approximately a 5-to-8-degree difference during the spring when you’re planting,” he says. The temperatures were measured from mid-April through late May.
“This is an issue more for corn than soybeans, which usually plant a little later and tend to be more tolerant of the conditions. Corn is very sensitive to soil temperature, and a 5-to-8-degree difference can make a difference in yield during the year,” Alesii notes.
Measurement of emergence over the 5 years in all of the fields showed that no-till corn averaged 91% emergence; strip-till corn, 95%; conventional-till corn, 93%; and “fast-start” corn (using a stale seedbed prepared in the fall and planted in the spring), 93%.
No-till soybeans showed 88% emergence and conventional-tillage soybeans 89% emergence.
“There’s small difference here: no-till is a little bit worse than conventional tillage,” Alesii notes. “But strip-till clearly does a little better than no-till and compensates for some of the problems of no-tilling in heavy, poorly drained soils. For soybeans, there is very little difference between the conventional and no-till.”
The conservation-tillage fields averaged 540,000 earthworms per acre, compared to just 285,000 in conventional tillage.
“We can really see an improvement in earthworm populations going from a conventional program to a no-till program,” he says. “That adds to a lot of other good things — improvement in the soil structure, organic matter and so on.”
Water filtration into the soil also improves with no-till, he says. “That might be a problem in a wet spring, but it’s a really good thing during the hot part of the year. Water evaporation and runoff are cut by at least 70%.”
The no-till fields could absorb at least an inch or more of water than conventionally tilled fields over time periods ranging from 1 to 3 hours. “This definitely improves with no-till systems and strip-till systems versus conventional tillage,” he says.
“You hear a lot of criticism from conventional-tillage farmers that the bulk density gets worse if you no-till. They say the soil tightens up. In reality, though, what we see is very little difference between the bulk densities of a strip-till and no-till or a conventional-till program.
"They’re basically identical,” Alesii says. “We don’t see the problems that a lot of conventional farmers will tell you that they’re running into.”
Among Monsanto’s other research findings are:
Labor And Time
“It takes 73 minutes per acre to do conventional tillage vs. 29 minutes for no-till. That’s probably the biggest benefit you all get,” Alesii says. “And one of the things not considered in the cost analysis is the value of time.
"If you’re farming 2,000 acres, and you’re saving a half an hour per acre, that’s 1,000 hours that you are saving!”
Monsanto’s market research shows that no-tillers cite labor and time savings as by far the most important benefit of no-tilling, increasingly so as the average size of farms increases. Lower input costs ranked second, he says.
Higher yields and moisture conservation are cited more often by no-tillers in the West and the Plains than by those in the Corn Belt, he says.
“You’re looking at a pretty significant savings, about 5.3 gallons per acre in conventional tillage vs. 1.4 gallons for no-till. That’s almost a 4-gallons-per-acre benefit.
According to Alesii, no-till can “basically stop soil erosion in its tracks” while increasing organic matter about a tenth of a percent per year. It also increases the amount of stored water in dry areas by about 30% over conventional tillage, he says.
Alesii says growers should put more emphasis on the environmental benefits of no-tilling because government farm programs are increasingly rewarding environmental improvements.
“When we decrease leaching and runoff losses, we decrease the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere,”
“Whether you believe in global warming or not, 170 countries say it’s a problem. Agriculture, especially no-tilling, could be a major solution to that problem,” he adds.
“You can take carbon out of the atmosphere and stick it back into the soil as organic matter, improving our soil and helping to solve what’s perceived to be a global threat to all of us,” he says.
“Carbon sequestration is a topic that I think is going to continue to grow over the coming years,” he adds.
No-tilling increases wildlife populations, according to Alesii. “We have all seen more wildlife on your farms. Clearly, there is food out there for them to eat. There is protection from predators and the elements. Also, increased nesting sites.”
Alesii concludes, “What we have seen over the years is that there is no other practice that delivers the benefits of no-till or
strip-till economically, agronomically and environmentally.”
(Editor's Note: This article first appeared in No-Till Farmer's August 2005 edition.)