Fast vs. Fuel - The New No-Till Debate



Tilling this quarter section of cornstalks in a three-pass program could consume 404 gallons of diesel and take 37 hours. Spraying with a burndown herbicide for a no-till program cuts it back to 20 gallons of fuel and two hours of time.

Photo courtesy of Steve Werblow

Fast vs. Fuel - The New No-Till Debate



By Steve Werblow

Skyrocketing fuel and fertilizer bills have tempered some of the enthusiasm over unprecedented commodity prices. It seems like the perfect storm to push a no-till agenda – the chance to slash diesel consumption when fuel prices are at unheard-of levels. Then Paul Jasa, extension agricultural engineer at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb., and long-time proponent of no-till, points out that the push for conservation really needs to return to the very basics.

“Everybody's shocked about fuel and fertilizer prices on an individual basis when they see the bills come in,” he notes. “But on a ratio basis, nitrogen is cheap. Diesel is cheap. If you look at how many bushels you can grow on a 50-cent pound of nitrogen, you're making roughly the same as when anhydrous was 20 cents and corn was $2.

“A year ago, when we were told we'd see $3 diesel, everybody gasped,” Jasa adds. “Now we're buying it. And the high commodity prices are buffering it. So the disks are back out and the field cultivators are back out.

“I like to sell the soil structure benefits of no-till,” he says, going back to the fundamentals of the push for continuous no-till. “There are still going to be the long-term benefits of building that soil.”

Earlier Planting

The benefits of good soil structure in continuously no-tilled fields was glaringly apparent this spring, when waves of rainstorms and northern snowfalls delayed planting week after week.

“Timeliness of field operations is still a big benefit,” says Jasa. “We were planting soybeans on May 6. We'd already gotten all of our corn in, and a lot of our conventional-till neighbors hadn't turned a wheel yet because it was too wet to get into their fields. That was a difference you could clearly see.

“People are muttering about $3 fuel, but many of them hadn't burned any fuel yet because they couldn't get into the field,” he adds.

Days when no-till planters were running across the fenceline from field cultivators is persuasive testimony to the power of good soil structure and drainage – especially in a spring when early planting was a bygone dream and the thought of getting seed into the ground at all seemed like a distant hope.

“My insurance agent has just gotten into no-till,” says Dan Gillespie, a corn and soybean grower from Nebraska's Loess Hills who also serves as the state no-till specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Nebraska. “He stopped by and said, ‘I had a wonderful time no-tilling my field yesterday. My neighbor had a four-wheel-drive tractor and a field cultivator out, and while he was running out there doing tillage, I was planting.'”

Back to Basics

In April, Gillespie compared the difference in time and fuel between conventional tillage and no-till.

“I wanted to give farmers a direct look so they could say, ‘this is how much it's costing me and this is how much time it's taking. Is it worth it?'” Gillespie says.

It's an argument many growers have heard. But Gillespie makes it in stark terms.

Seedbed preparation for a quarter-section of land using three tillage passes – ripping, disking and field cultivating – with a 200-hp tractor requires 404 gallons of diesel, he figures. By contrast, making a burndown pass on that same 160 acres for a no-till program would take just 20 gallons of fuel. Just eliminating the ripper cuts fuel consumption down to less than half of the conventional program, to 162 gallons, Gillespie says.

Those gallons add up to big dollars, especially when diesel is assumed to cost $3.25 per gallon.

“The hour meter on your tractor can reflect up to a $1,000-per-day cost to do tillage,” Gillespie points out. On a quarter-section, the three-trip conventional tillage program represents $17.90 per acre in costs and 37 hours of work. Outfitting that same tractor with a 90-foot spray boom and making a burndown pass for a no-till program prepares the seedbed in just two hours for $6.47 per acre.

Sure, a $5 or $6 bushel of corn can help eat up those fuel costs, he acknowledges. But preparing a field in two hours instead of two long days, and planting a week or two earlier, can really tip the scales in favor of no-till. That's if the long-term benefits of healthier soil, better drainage, and timelier planting haven't sold you.

For more information…

Check out Dan Gillespie's comparison of three-pass, two-pass and no-till farming at . A no-till listserv links the No-Till Cadre – a team of university and NRCS no-till experts from around Nebraska – with farmers, crop advisors, agribusiness people and other folks interested in exploring the ins and outs of no-till. To get on the email list, join the listserv by sending an email to and typing SUBSCRIBE NO-TILL {your name} in the message (not the subject line).


Despite skyrocketing corn prices, rising bean prices, lower time and fuel inputs, and the long-term agronomic benefits of rotation can tip the economic scale toward a corn/soybean rotation.

Photo courtesy of Steve Werblow

New No-Till Resource Online

The University of Nebraska's Soil and Water Management Web site ( crops/ soil?doAsUserId=LJl9J64Gueg%25253D ) features a primer on no-till as well as a wealth of more in-depth exploration of key benefits such as soil structure, the soil ecosystem, residue management, water conservation and water quality. Clicking from the introductory pages by University of Nebraska Extension agricultural engineer Paul Jasa to volumes of how-to documents and profiles of successful no-tillers allows readers to explore no-till and conservation layer by layer.

Do You Really Need to Go to Continuous Corn?

One of the challenges facing no-till promoters is the often-heard line, “It would be fine if I was coming in after beans, but with corn prices being what they are, I'm going with corn after corn.” Dan Gillespie, state no-till specialist for NRCS in Nebraska and a no-till farmer since 1986, says the market has taken care of that. “With soybean prices catching up to corn now, there's less reason to go to continuous corn unless you just like to grow corn,” he says. Need to pencil it out to be sure? Extension agricultural economists Matt Stockton and Roger Wilson at the University of Nebraska have developed a bulletin and online spreadsheets to explore the relative benefits of continuous corn vs. rotations in irrigated or dryland conditions. The bulletin is online and the simple, fill-in-the-blank spreadsheets are also online. Even continuous corn can work well in a continuous no-till program that has fostered good soil structure and drainage, Gillespie says, at least in his 28-inch rainfall zone. For wetter areas of the Corn Belt, Gillespie recommends exploring cover crops to pull excess moisture from the soil and turn it into organic-matter-boosting biomass.


Minnesota grower Tony Thompson is one of those growers. He installed 16 control structures on a 140-acre field near Windom, Minn., to control drainage water. Thompson's slope is about one percent, so each structure manages a zone of about nine acres. At $500 to $2,000 per structure, the drainage water management structures only added about five to 15 percent to the cost of upgrading the field's century-old drainage system.

Though he hasn't measured a yield bump from the system yet, Thompson thinks drainage water management could be a good investment on his operation.

"If we as farmers don't take aggressive action ourselves to make sure our runoff water is of the best quality possible, there will be a more regulatory approach," he predicts. "I'd rather be part of a preemptive movement."

Drainage Water Management Is Part of the Conservation Agriculture Continuum

Grower Tony Thompson of Windom, Minn., sees his drainage water management system as an integral part of his broad approach to conservation agriculture, which includes ridge-till, cover cropping, closed tile intakes and other best management practices.

"The farmer has to think about water before the rain droplets strike the soil," Thompson notes. "The first thought is how to try to prevent the raindrop from striking bare soil. Once it's on the soil surface, we want it seeping into the ground and not running off the field, so we're working on tillage systems and buffering riparian areas.

"We've accomplished all those goals and had a big positive response in our surface waters and wetlands," he adds. "But the water passing through the drainage systems still needed some sort of treatment and is still very energy-charged when it comes out the outlet."

As a result, drainage water management continues the work that begins with crop residue management.


Visit the Agricultural Drainage Management Coalition (ADMC) web site at for details on drainage water management systems, the science and regulations surrounding drainage water management, and — soon — data from each of the 20 demonstration sites in the Midwest.