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Author: Matt Kruger
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the national average cost of diesel is $5.14 a gallon as of November 28, 2022, up nearly $1.50 compared to last year. Farmers are paying almost $2.25 a gallon more in some geographies for diesel fuel this year. And according to a report by Texas A&M Agriculture and Food Policy Center, farmers paid 86% more for fuel and lubricants this year than they did in 2021. For operations looking for ways to reduce their diesel bill, it may be an opportune time to try a new tillage strategy.
Tillage and fuel costs
The USDA estimates that farmers practicing conventional tillage use slightly more than 6 gallons of diesel fuel per acre each year. In contrast, continuous no-till operations require less than 2 gallons per acre. By switching to no-till, a farmer tilling 100 acres could save 416 gallons of diesel fuel, nearly $2,150 each year based on current diesel prices.*
According to USDA estimates, farmers who practice seasonal no-till – for example, no-tilling soybeans in a corn/soybean rotation – can save more than 3.2 gallons of fuel per acre. That pencils out to almost $1,650 in fuel savings annually on a 100-acre operation.
Farmers may also reduce fuel costs by switching from aggressive tillage to less intensive methods. In addition to fuel costs, farmers can potentially reduce equipment and labor expenses by switching to conservation tillage methods.
Why is conventional tillage used?
Conventional tillage is used for several reasons. Tillage helps warm and dry soils for timely planting and creates a favorable seedbed for maximum seed-to-soil contact, improving germination and emergence. Additionally, tillage can help manage and incorporate residue and crop nutrients into the soil to improve organic matter and fertility. Tillage may also be used to reduce weed pressure before planting. While all these benefits may favor a crop’s strong start, reduced tillage strategies may provide similar results and improve soil health for long-term yield stability.
What are the benefits of reduced tillage?
Reduced tillage is gaining popularity on the farm. According to the latest USDA Census of Agriculture published in 2017, the number of acres under reduced tillage increased by 28% from 2012. During the same period, the number of farms practicing intensive tillage declined by 35%.
Why are more farms adopting conservation tillage? For many, it’s for the soil health benefits. Reduced tillage promotes increased soil microorganism activity, which helps break down crop residue, increases nutrient cycling and improves soil structure. Additionally, conservation tillage increases soil’s water-holding capacity and filtration. Leaving residue on fields also helps reduce wind and water erosion, leaving nutrient-rich topsoil in fields to support healthy crop growth.
A 2021 report by the Soil Health Institute surveyed 100 farms in nine states to evaluate the economics of adopting soil health practices and systems, including reduced tillage and cover crops. Here are a few notable takeaways from that report.
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