No-till means more benefits for farmers, their soil and the climate

Some Missouri farmers are embracing a non-traditional planting practice that increases soil health and, unbeknownst to most, is more climate friendly.

Tillage has been a common practice in cropland farming for centuries. However, evidence shows that the process of breaking soil and turning it over can do more harm than good for the ground and atmosphere. To improve the health of their soil, some farmers have either partially or completely stopped tilling before planting crops—a practice known as no-till farming.

No-till farming is done by leaving soil undisturbed before planting and instead using herbicides or other agricultural techniques, like cover crops, to keep the soil healthy and arable. The method is shown to help strengthen the soil while allowing water to enter the surface and preserve organic matter.

Steve Swaffer, the executive director of No-till on the Plains, a non-profit educational organization focusing on sustainable agriculture, explained that there are two types of no-till farming. The first is minimal or reduced till, where farmers will include some no-till practices between harvests. For example, farmers might leave the soil alone after one crop is harvested but will eventually till the soil before switching crops.

“The true no-till farmers are the ones that are really committed to the practice,” Swaffar said. “We call it continuous no-till or never-till.”

Farmers typically make the switch to no-till because their soil is highly erodible, Luke Eaton, an environmental science analyst with Sustainable Environmental Consultants, said.

“Tillage loosens the soil structure; it kind of turns the soil into a powder that can get washed away easier by the rain,” Eaton said. He also explained that tilling soil can cause a breakdown in its organic matter, which is made of plant residue and nutrients that help hold the structure of the soil. The breakdown creates erosion and releases organic carbon from the soil and into the atmosphere.

As a result, farmers who practice no-till farming are also helping curb carbon emissions.

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is causing the earth’s atmosphere to get hotter. Over the past 60 years, the increase of carbon dioxide has been about 100 times faster than previous natural increases and has recently been recorded to be at an all time high.

The United State’s agriculture sector makes up a little over 10% of the country’s emissions as of 2018. That 10% is millions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year.

But with improved agricultural practices, such as no-till farming, this number can be reduced.

A report released in October 2020 by farmer-run organization MoSoy shows the shift to reduced and no-till farming, along with other sustainable practices, is beneficial for the environment.

The report explains that Missouri’s average annual temperature has been higher than normal for 22 of the last 25 years. It’s predicted that higher temperatures will cause reduced soil moisture and an increased demand for water, threatening corn and soybean yields. It’s also predicted that increased rainfall will make planting more difficult and soil erosion more common. 

Swaffar described the soil as a sink, “you can only put so much water in the sink before it starts to overflow.” 

These changes in Missouri’s climate will affect farmers productivity and profitability. 

However, by using sustainable agricultural practices, including no-till, the report found that emissions from agricultural crop acres in Missouri have been reduced by almost three tons annually while farmers still harvest high yields.

Missouri farmers are not necessarily switching to no-till farming specifically to curb carbon emissions. Swaffar goes as far to say that very little of the change in agricultural practices in the Great Plains is in direct response to climate change. 

Rather, farmers are changing to keep their soil healthy, maintain their livelihood and keep up with the changing seasons. 

He does preface this by explaining that policy and consumers have a big stake in what changes farmers may make. If consumers are looking for a sticker on products that says grown no-till farming system or grown with soil health principles in mind, that could have a big impact on what farmers do in the future.

Colleen Wouters earned her bachelor’s degree in science, health and environmental journalism at the Missouri Journalism School in May 2021.

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