A sloping field that has been conventionally tilled can lose the equivalent of 50 tons of topsoil per acre after a heavy rain. This doesn't just hurt the farmlandit costs farmers time and money, and much of that topsoil ends up dirtying Kentucky's waterways.
That's why UK agricultural experts and Kentucky farmers have been studying the benefits of no-till farming since the mid-1960s and working to develop more ecologically friendly tillage methods.
"No-till is the practice of leaving cover crops or the residues of the previous crop to protect the surface of the soil, like a mulch," says John Grove, an agronomy professor in the UK College of Agriculture. "The thing that makes no-till unique is that planting, weed control and fertilization methods actually make this production system more profitable on many soils than till farming."
Conventional tillage involves creating a bare soil surface for part of the year in spring, when soil is most vulnerable to erosion. Grove says about 75 percent of Kentucky's suitable farming acres face some degree of erosion riskthat's 11.4 million acres.
Erosion drains the life out of farmland: it reduces the amount of water available to plants, it weakens the water-holding capacity of the soil, and it siphons off the soil's nutrients, decreasing long-term fertility. No-tillage is all about preventing this type of thing from happening.
"The mulch creates an environment that conserves water in the soil for the benefit of the crop and also for the benefit of the soil biology, so droughts tend to be a little bit shorter," Grove says.
He adds that no-till farming preserves local biology, such as insects and ground-nesting birds, and protects the organisms that live in watery habitats from being choked with mud and silt.
"I would argue that no-till is more wildlife friendly," Grove says. "It's definitely soil and water-quality friendly."
Major Kentucky crops that stand to benefit most from no-till are corn, soybeans, pasture crops (like legumes, alfalfa and clover), and wheat. According to Grove, over half of Kentucky's major crops are in complete no-till systems. UK researchers and Kentucky farmers are also working with no-till tobacco, and are looking into no-till vegetable production.
No-till has some drawbacks. There are different weed control and plant disease issues than in conventional farming, and, in a few cases, certain insect pests are more likely. However, Grove says the benefits of no-till far outweigh the drawbacks for Kentucky's agricultural community. He says that no-till farming and similar conservation methods end up helping all Kentuckians.
"What the average person should know is that farmers who use these kinds of practices for their fields are helping themselves, but they're also helping the rest of us, too," Grove says. "No-till helps keep soil on the land's surface where it belongs and where it will do the most good for everyone concernedfor the landowner and for the water user. From a public perspective, the real benefit of no-till is sediment control. Soil becomes dirt when it ends up in some-body's water."