What Are the Benefits of No-till Farming? All You Need To Know!

Human culture has developed many different ways to grow crops since the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago. In the Western world today we are mostly used to the tilling system, often by the way of plowing. Before the age of machines though, tilling was prohibitively laborious, and no-till was widely used. In our modern age of today, are there any benefits to no-till farming?

There are a number of benefits to no-till farming. The main one is erosion control, which helps to maintain and preserve the soil. No-till also serves to maintain microorganisms and nutrients in the soil. There is also an economic incentive since no-till saves fuel and labor.

No-till farming has been used since at least 3000 BC, with farmers using a stick to produce holes for planting their crops. This was traditionally practiced by the Inca empire and is still in use today by hundreds of thousands of farmers in Central and South America, continents that have historically lacked large draught animals to be used for plowing.

Interest in no-till in the modern-day USA increased after the 1930’s Dust Bowl conditions but adoption of the technique in North America didn’t take off until broadleaf pesticides became widely available in the 1940s. Interestingly though, modern usage has more than doubled globally during the last 20 years. We will investigate why this is.

For example, an 18-year study by the University of Giessen concluded that no-till is profitable compared to tilling because it significantly lowers operational costs. This should be doubly relevant today as the prices of gas and electricity keep rising. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of no-till in the modern era.

What Are the Pros and Cons of No-till Farming?

Like every method, there are both pros and cons with no-till farming. Let’s have a look at the main points, below:


  • Erosion control, maintaining microorganisms and nutrients
  • Lower operational costs, such as tractor power requirements
  • Minimum fuel and labor costs


  • Increased dependence on herbicides
  • Can take over a decade before becoming profitable after switching from tilling
  • Carrying over deceases 

While we should take all of these factors into consideration, erosion control and increased usage of herbicides each have an impact that goes beyond the particular farm and with potentially much wider implications for our world. Let’s have a closer look:

Geologist David Montgomery writes in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, that the world loses up to 23 billion tons of good soil every year. This means that all of it will disappear within 150 years. Against that background, erosion control becomes increasingly important. By not tilling the earth and by leaving a layer of mulch on top the soil is protected against wind erosion and moisture loss. This reduces or stops soil erosion and boosts the microbial life in the soil, increasing and maintaining the nutrients in the ground, making it more resilient.

Although no-till farming can serve to protect the soil, it can also lead to an increased dependence on herbicides. This is because one effect of tilling is to kill off weeds. Although this is a potential drawback, the whole picture is more complex. Regeneration International makes a difference between conventional and organic no-till, writing that the latter employs a spectrum of methods to combat weeds, for example by planting cover crops to protect the soil during the fall and winter months. Another way is to rotate crops to break the weed cycle.

Rows of Green

Is No-till Farming More Profitable?

The US Department of Agriculture writes in an article from 2021 that “fuel saved is money saved”. In their article “Saving Money, Time and Soil: The Economics of No-Till Farming” they state that an individual farmer with 1,000 acres of crops can save $8,500 on fuel, each year. They continue, writing that the same farmer will also save money on labor costs and equipment maintenance which could add up to thousands of dollars annually.

Let’s have a closer look at the fuel equation from above. In the article, the USDA assumes an average fuel price of $2.05 per gallon. They then base their calculation on a 1,000-acre plot of farmland. They then describe that a switch from tillage to no-till will save the farmer 4,160 gallons of diesel for that plot of land, leading to a reduction of $8,500 in fuel expenses per year. This should be doubly relevant today as gas prices keep rising. 

The complete picture is actually more complex. An 18-year study by the University of Giessen concluded that no-till is profitable compared to tilling because it significantly lowers operational costs.

On the other hand, the Kansas State University Department of Agricultural Economics, in their publication “A Cost Comparison of No-Till and Tillage Farms” finds no clear pattern for the total expense ratio for till versus no-till farming during the years 2010 to 2014.

However, The Soil Health Partnership reports higher net returns and lower per-acre costs for no-till farming compared to tillage farming.

Is Tilling or No-tilling Better?

We briefly looked into the pros and cons of no-till farming above. Answering whether no-till farming is better than till farming comes down to what your main goals are. 

As we have seen above, from a pure profit perspective, the results are inconclusive. This presumes that we are talking about heavy machine-owning farmers in North America. For smaller farms in South America, the answer will be very different.

One thing to take into account is that no-till soil takes longer to warm and dry up in the spring. This is because the absence of tills and the presence of cover crops preserves the moisture in the soil. This may cause delays in planting, and indirectly affect crop yields. However, global warming induced by climate change may offset this in the short term. 

On the other hand, if we take a wider global perspective and look at the health of the soil and the future of farming over the long term we will find some factors in favor of no-till farming. For instance, Montgomery warns us that the soil lost to erosion every year measures in the billions of tons, something that no-till farming can help to combat due to its natural resistance to wind erosion on flat terrain and water erosion on slopes. 

What Are the Negative Effects of No-till Farming?

There are some potential negative effects of no-till farming. For example, after the farmer has switched from tillage to no-till, it can take up to a decade or longer for the no-till system to become profitable. This requires both patience and planning to accomplish well. 

Likewise, there is a risk of having to rely more heavily on herbicides to combat weeds, and also a risk of deceases carrying over from the previous harvest. However, we have also seen that there are methods to combat both of these. The use of cover crops, as well as crop rotation for instance, has been proven to be effective in these cases.

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