A recent Washington Post article hailed the increased adoption of no-till farming in the United States. As I’ve previously written, no-till farmers plant directly into the stubble of the previous year’s crop. The stubble acts like a garden mulch, protecting soil, preserving moisture, and preventing weeds. As a recent United Nations Environment Programme report pointed out, no-till potentially could also be a key method to reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.
No-till farming can be a real economic boon to farmers, too, saving them time and money and increasing their yields.
For example, let’s take a look at a sample annual operating budget for a “dryland” (non-irrigated) farm in eastern Nebraska. Using yield data from the University of Nebraska’s long-term side-by-side tillage comparison study and sample budgets from the University of Nebraska Extension Office, we can see the difference in operating costs between sample no-till and conventional tillage systems:
(click to expand chart)
The big savings here come from decreased labor and fuel requirements for the no-till system. The conventional tiller in this example must make three and a half additional trips (“passes”) across the field, “disking” and “cultivating” the ground in preparation for planting. Our no-till farmer eliminated those trips and saved $33.69/acre in the process.
But how do the systems compare when it comes to costly inputs? No-till has been criticized for increasing herbicide application since a major reason farmers till fields is to remove weeds. However, there are steadily increasing opportunities for farmers to transition to organic no-till systems and eschew pesticides entirely, and a 2005 publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations points out that excessive herbicide use “is not an inherent characteristic of no-tillage farming, as there are alternative ways for weed management even without returning to soil tillage and cultivation.” In fact, when we look at the input costs in our sample budgets, it turns out that no-till requires fewer inputs overall than conventional tillage systems:
(click to expand chart)
No-till did require slightly higher herbicide investments ($21.94/acre more), but more than made up the cost, primarily through reduced fertilizer requirements ($20/acre less) and fungicide requirements ($7.27/acre less). All in all, our sample no-till farmer saved $29.20/acre on inputs compared to the conventional tilling farmer.
Once interest, overhead, taxes, and other related ownership costs are added in, the no-till farmer invested $795.18/acre in his corn, while the conventional tilling farmer invested $859.22/acre in his corn.
The final area where our no-till farmer outpaced his conventional tilling peer is yield. Using yield data from the University of Nebraska’s long-term tillage system comparison study, we see that our no-till farmer again has the upper hand. We’ll use 2011 numbers because 2012 was an atypical drought year (though it’s worth noting that no-till outperformed conventional tillage during the drought as well). In 2011, the no-till plot averaged 197.1 bushels of corn per acre, while the conventional tillage plot averaged 190.1 bushels per acre. Assuming a $5 corn price, we see that our no-till farmer had $985.50/acre in revenue, while the conventional tilling farmer had $950.50/acre in revenue.
Subtracting total costs, we see no-till had net revenues of $190.32 and conventional tillage had net revenues of $91.28/acre. In other words, our no-till farmer was 52% more profitable than his conventional tilling peer.
Another way to look at these numbers is to consider the cost per bushel of production. It cost the no-till farmer $4.03 to produce one bushel of corn, and the conventional tiller $4.52 to produce a bushel. That gives the no-tiller more of a cushion to remain profitable if prices drop.
More and more farmers are recognizing the economic and environmental benefits no-till offers, as the Post piece points out. But there’s room for improvement. Two-thirds of U.S. cropland is still intensively tilled! Conventional tilling farmers may be hesitant to try practices they are unfamiliar with, or they may be reluctant to invest in the new equipment no-till operations require, even if they’ll save money and labor over time. We could increase adoption of practices like no-till by offering farmers additional financial incentives. For example, as NRDC’s Soil Matters report points out, no-till farmers really deserve a discount on their crop insurance (similar to a “Good Driver Discount” for car insurance), because they’re less likely to lose their crops due to bad weather. A “Good Steward Discount” could help encourage more farmers to park their plows and see what no-till can do for them.