COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The environmental and conservation benefits of no-till production may be reason enough to adopt the practice, but for many farmers the answer to one question remains a driving factor: "Will it improve my bottom line?" Farmers now have a way of putting a dollar value on no-till production, and based on an Ohio State University project, the method demonstrates potential on-farm savings.
Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer and conservation tillage specialist, said that by using custom rates, farmers can quickly calculate the cost difference between no-till and intensive tillage practices based on what they do on the farm to grow corn and soybeans. In a small project, conducted by Reeder's students in a machinery management class, it was found that an average Ohio farm could save around $10 to $20 an acre per year using no-till compared to conventional tillage.
"Farmers usually only have one set of data to work with, which is the practice they currently use on the farm. So they lack information about the economics of an alternate practice," said Reeder. "Using custom rates provides a nice guide for determining the cost difference between two production systems. If a farmer currently chisel plows and he or she wants to switch to no-till, using custom rates gives a good indicator of the potential savings."
Reeder said that farmers can realize machinery cost savings with no-till based on equipment -- eliminating fall plowing and spring tillage typically eliminates the need for the largest tractor on the farm. Depreciation, interest, fuel, labor and other costs can be calculated, but custom rates can give a quick, reasonable estimate of the potential savings.
The OSU Extension fact sheet, "Ohio Farm Custom Rates – 2008," gives average rates ($/acre) for a wide range of field operations. Chisel plowing averages about $14 per acre, and secondary tillage is $10 to $12 per acre. Of course, if there are extra costs associated with no-till, such as an extra pass to spray herbicides, that will cancel out part of the tillage savings, said Reeder.
The Ohio State University project results are similar to a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin that also used custom rates to calculate cost savings in no-till production. For corn, the Wisconsin researchers determined that chisel plowing had to have at least an 8-bushel per acre yield advantage to equal no-till. Or in other words, a farmer could take an 8-bushel loss in no-till to break even with tillage.
While no-till soybeans have been widely adopted, Reeder said that the method of putting a dollar value on no-till production may be a way of encouraging more farmers to consider no-till corn.
"An age-old question is if it saves money, why isn't everybody doing it? Well, most farmers feel they lose too much yield in no-till corn, at least in the first few years," said Reeder. "But we've learned that a small yield reduction can still come out ahead economically."
Ohio State researchers are working on increasing no-till corn yields in the first season by using cover crops and adding more nitrogen. Using row cleaners on the planter and making sure the combine spreads all chaff and other crop residue across the full width of the header are other keys to better no-till corn yields, said Reeder.
Couple that with the environmental benefits of no-till -- stored carbon, reduced soil erosion, improved soil quality, among others -- and it may be a worthwhile practice for more farmers to adopt, said Reeder.