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Again, No-Till Proves Its Worth

By David Elstein
June 18, 2003

No-till farming can help farmers increase yields, diversify crops and reduce soil erosion, according to a new, 12-year, Agricultural Research Service and Colorado State University (CSU) study that once again shows the effectiveness of this farming system.

The ARS Great Plains Systems Research Unit and CSU, both based in Fort Collins, Colo., have shown that farmers on the Northern Great Plains can increase their yields by switching to no-till farming using three- and four-year rotations. That's compared to the traditional method of tilling the soil, then using two-year rotations of wheat the first year and then not growing crops--in other words, leaving the ground fallow--the second year.

Using no-till experiments on three cooperators' farms in three diverse climate zones, the researchers found the best rotation is to grow wheat one year, corn the following (or sorghum in warmer areas), and then use no-till fallow the third year. Also successful is a four-year rotation of wheat, corn (or sorghum), millet and then leaving the land fallow the fourth year. The research has found that grain production can go up by as much as 70 percent in the three- and four-year systems, and it can increase profit by 25 to 40 percent over the traditional wheat-fallow model.

Similar results were found at ARS' Central Great Plains Research Station in Akron, Colo. Scientists there work closely with the Fort Collins researchers.

Often, scientists have also found that farmers need not leave their land fallow, but can plant corn, sorghum, millet or forage if soil moisture in the spring is good and the forecast for summer rainfall is average or above.

Rain can be scarce in Colorado, but no-till helps capture precipitation and retain the moisture in the soil better than traditional farming. That's the primary reason for the increased yields. Also, soil organic matter levels have risen significantly and soil erosion has been cut down, thanks to no-till farming.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.