The 1990s saw many U.S.
producers adopting various forms of reduced tillage, especially no-till, mulch tillage,
and ridge-till. Regulatory requirements and input suppliers have driven this migration. A
powerful secondary inducement has been labor reduction. Farmers pursuing sustainability in
their operations have also shown interest in reduced tillage, but their priorities may be
somewhat different than those of their conventional neighbors. They have a
greater interest in environmental aspects of farming, and they place a priority on cost
reduction. While no-till can eliminate labor costs associated with cultivation, it
substitutes purchased inputs (herbicide) for that labor. Ridge tillage, properly oriented
to slopes, achieves essentially the same erosion control as no-till, but, unlike no-till,
ridge tillage requires row cultivation. Nevertheless, ridge tillage consistently ranks at
or near the top of all tillage systems in Successful Farming Magazines annual MAX
survey of profitability and conservation.
Trials conducted on-farm in this project confirm these findings. Whereas the MAX evaluates
farmers using their favored tillage form, these trials required each cooperator to execute
multiple kinds of tillage. Keeping in mind that, inevitably, people are most accomplished
at what they most enjoy, these data still carry a message.
Table 1 also shows that tillage comparisons did not always accurately represent one system
or the other. For example, both no-till and ridge-till received two broadcast herbicides
in one trial. Other treatment effects (e.g., no starter fertilizer used in no-till) were
confounded in order to accurately represent the typical local practice for a system.
The figure above shows results of tillage comparisons carried out under this project and
some years prior. In every comparison of ridge-till and no-till, ridge tillage was
economically superior. Although the yield advantage sometimes went to no-till, additional
expenses were not paid for by the yield increase. When conditions favored weeds, ridge
tillage presented a greater number of remedial options and less costly ones.