Conservation Tillage Systems in the Southeast

Transition to No-Till


The producer recommendations with regard to myth No. 2 are important parts of a successful transition from conventional tillage to no-till. However, there are other aspects of the transition that are important. The steep part of the learning curve occurs during the first three to five years. Most interviewed producers, however, state that they are still learning and are really still in transition. This is because they are working with a dynamic biological soil system and continue to learn what that means. The following three observations concern getting through the steep part of the learning curve.


Interviewed producers state that the most important requirement for a successful transition was determination: a commitment to make it work. “You have to want no-till to work,” says Kirk Brock. “Determination to make no-till work is a key,” says Bob Rawlins. Determination means monitoring the fields, looking for seed placement problems early enough to make adjustments, monitoring to catch weeds early and seeking advice at the first sign of trouble.

Although it was 30 years ago, William James from Triple J Farm readily remembers his first year of no-till. “The subsoilers on the planting rig pulled up large clods of clay and the wheat straw balled up on the subsoiler shanks,” he says. “The dry weather that year made the problem worse.” It was such a mess that James thought they might not do no-till again. However, James experimented and minimized these problems by putting a piece of black plastic pipe over each of the subsoiler shanks. This aided the flow of the straw to the sides of the subsoiler shaft and prevented the clods of clay from being pulled to the surface.

Triple J Farm suggests that the key is to “get the first stand.” If determination can get the producer to the first successful stand, then the transition will appear feasible.

NRCS field observations indicate that farmers who start with only a small portion of their acreage in no-till often fail. Starting small means that most of the farm, still in conventional tillage, receives most of the attention because it produces most of the revenue. The small “test” plot of no-till tends to be ignored, which tends to result in failure.


To be successful, producers must change their mindset about production. Paul Davis explains one mindset change concerning soil. Soil is more than a substance that physically keeps plants erect. Soil is an ecosystem that works with the plants to use nature’s resources in agricultural production. New instincts about farming develop. However, if the mindset is to return to conventional tillage at the first problem, then the transition will be unsuccessful. No-till requires perpetual fine-tuning as the soil ecosystem changes. Eventually the producer becomes more comfortable with less soil contact and less soil disturbance.

The Brocks, Rawlins and others point out that the no-till mindset requires patience and a longer planning time horizon. With a 20-year planning horizon for conventional tillage, the major variables are weather and prices (input and output prices). The dead soil from years of conventional tillage is rather stable and requires approximately the same inputs from one year to the next. However, a 20-year plan for no-till has three major variables: weather, prices and soil biology. The living soil changes over time in terms of biological diversity and population. No-till production works with, and needs to be mindful of, changes in soil biology. For example, during the transition, the need for fertilizer diminishes as the soil biology builds and provides a larger pool of nutrients for the next crop. Also, the symbiotic relationship of some soil fungi with plant roots enhances the ability of the plant to take up the available nutrients.

Cover Crop

Some of the producers have observed that a winter cover crop results in a faster transition to a healthy soil. When considering no-till, check if local conditions indicate that a cover crop would be part of a successful transition. The Brocks state that cover crops are key to the success of no-till on their soils. They now observe rye cover crop roots 60 inches deep, which enhances permeability.

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