Jim Kinsella, Lexington, IL, is a legend in the no-till world. He’s been practicing continuous no-till since the late 1970s and has welcomed thousands of no-till enthusiasts to his farm for nearly two decades – to share stories and tips, and to learn from his experience. Today, he and his son Brien farm 2,200 acres. 

Kinsella says continuous no-till and strip-till have proved profitable and effective on his land – from his lighter timber soils to the heavier prairie soils.

“It’s improved the structure, biological activity and organic matter of our soils since we started,” he says. “It takes time for this to happen, but we’re in our 35th year and we’ve reaped the benefits for some time now.”

Kinsella, along with Dwayne Beck, South Dakota State University manager of the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, Pierre, SD; and Steve Groff, owner of Cedar Meadow Farm of Holtwood, PA, say the principles of no-till really haven’t changed much through the years. However, the tools continue to evolve.

Kinsella says the advantages of no-till are the same today as they ever were: erosion control, reduced horsepower needs, improved soil quality and nutrient cycling. Now, cover crops are changing the no-till world, too, he says.

“We have a lot of earthworms and better soil porosity,” he says. “And, the water management in a dry year such as this is an advantage. When we have big thunderstorms and quick rains, we have basically no runoff, and that water can be used for the rest of the summer.”

In an 18-in. yearly precipitation area, the Dakota Lakes Research Farm has practiced continuous no-till, with and without irrigation, for more than 20 years. Some land is in various rotations, including corn, soybeans and sorghum. And, some land is planted to continuous corn.

Beck says although the technology and tools of no-till have changed through the years, the principles of no-till remain the same.

“Mother Nature has been doing no-till long before we got here,” he says. “Jim (Kinsella) and I have always held diversity as our primary tools, using rotation, sanitation and competition as our main tools.”

Dakota Lakes Research Farm utilizes diverse rotations, 20-in. row spacings and natural predators to largely control pests and weeds.

“And we use fertilizer placement to assist with weed control,” Beck says. “If I broadcast a fertilizer, it also feeds the weeds for weeks. But, if I place the fertilizer next to the corn row, it gives the plants an advantage in accessing fertilizer. That becomes weed control.”

Groff began no-tilling in 1982 on his cash-grain and vegetable farm. Today, along with the University of Maryland, he’s leading the research on cover crops – primarily Brassicas, including a tillage radish. And growers across the nation are taking notice.

 “Cover crops will pay their way, especially on land that is transitioning into no-till” Groff says, citing a University of Maryland 12-year study conducted on his farm. “Radishes cause the soil to be more mellow, and suppress winter annual weeds because they grow so fast.”

Because tillage radish seed was not commercially available, Groff and his team began propagating the seed. A branded variety will be launched commercially in 2013.

Groff says the greatest challenge to cover crop usage is time: getting the crop planted in the short window between harvest and ground freeze. And the returns on cover crops can be difficult to measure at times – just as with no-till, Groff says.

But cover crops aren’t the only advance in no-till. The equipment, satellite technology and yield monitors are also making great strides, Kinsella says.

The Kinsellas do their own tiling on poorly drained ground. And RTK systems have cut time spent on tiling projects in half because you don’t have to pre-survey the ground or figure all the slopes and grades, he says.

For someone who sees the benefits of no-till but hasn’t yet made the move, these experts offer words of advice.

When considering a transition to no-till, Kinsella says many factors must be considered. First, he says, it takes some time.

“In the first four or five years, you’ll likely run into some problems with soil quality and managing a new system,” he says. “It’s like learning a new game. If you play tennis well and then begin to play golf, you’re probably not going to be very good the first time out.”

In addition, realize that converting to a no-till system can cost a bit more than conventional tillage in the short term, Kinsella says.

“You may see decreased yields for a year or two,” he says. “But long term, you have a definite advantage – with less expense, better soil quality and improved water use and nutrient cycling.”

Beck says a grower should not ask, “How do I start in no-till,” but rather, “How can I improve my soil?

“Your goal shouldn’t be to become a no-tiller,” he says. “The goal should be to try to maximize the effects of your water and nutrient cycling and your soil’s biological activity. As soon as you look at that, and you’re doing tillage, you’ll see that it’s a negative thing.”

Beck says he believes no-till revolves around farmers taking responsibility for their land and their actions. “Someone has to be the adult here,” he says.

Kinsella says he’s a bit uncertain about what the future of no-till holds. He admits he’s been disappointed with growers’ adoption of it in recent years.

“With the current higher prices for most crops, it would seem this would be an ideal time to commit to take better care of the soil for the future,” he says. “However, it appears that an attempt to gain a short-term profit is a higher priority for some than long-term profitability and sustainability,” Kinsella says.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he says. “The wet springs of the past two years have resulted in a lot of tillage to speed up soil drying. If you fly over many of these fields and look at the crops, you can see the adverse effects of tilling wet ground in spring. The attempt to gain more profits with tillage may have backfired.”

Kinsella says he also hopes to see more emphasis on soil conservation, as well as water and air quality in the upcoming farm bill.

“With the threat of greater broad-based agricultural regulations, the advantages of no-till in nutrient cycling, water-use efficiency, water quality and dust control should be considered,” he says.

He also believes that with the trend of more farmers, rather than investors, purchasing land, no-till may seem appealing.

“If a farmer buys the ground, he’s going to be much more likely to take care of it – especially if he’s paying $10,000/acre,” he says.

Although the benefits of no-till have remained constant through the decades, Kinsella says the advances regarding the practice are still exciting. By keeping an eye on technology, regulations and trends such as cover crops, those involved in the practice can stay on the cutting edge.