Get the Dirt on Tilling

By Kevin Coffman


Farmers are innovators. Over time, we discovered new ways to improve harvests and feed ever-growing populations. One of these methods was tillage – digging, stirring and overturning the soil. For thousands of years, farmers used this technique to control weeds that would otherwise compete with food crops for nutrients and water. Tilling uproots weeds and gives crops a better chance to thrive.

Tilling, however, comes with some negative consequences for both farmers and the environment. Over the last 20 years or so, the increased adoption of a method known as “reduced-till” farming avoids many of these negative effects and delivers benefits to farmers and ecosystems alike.

In reduced-till farming, the soil is left undisturbed except for planting seeds. Even applying fertilizer, weed control and crop protection products are done in a way as not to disturb the soil. Crop residues are left on the ground to decay and return nutrients and carbon to the soil, essentially recreating the virtuous, natural cycle that was in place before tillage became commonplace. Some of the benefits of reduced-till farming:

  1. Saves time and money. Fewer trips across the field means reduced labor costs.
  2. Saves fuel. Saves an average of 3.5 gallons an acre or 1,750 gallons on a 500-acre farm.
  3. Reduces wear and tear on farming equipment.
  4. Improves soil conditions by enabling small soil clumps that make it easier for plants to take root.
  5. Increases organic matter, which enhances soil fertility.
  6. Traps rainfall to improve water availability.
  7. Reduces erosion, keeping fertile topsoil in place.
  8. Improves water quality by reducing runoff of nutrients and pesticides into waterways.
  9. Increases wildlife because crop residues provide shelter and food for birds, small animals and beneficial insects.
  10. Combats climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from tractors and tying up more carbon in organic matter of the soil.

So what’s behind the big upswing in reduced-till farming over the past couple of decades? Well, one of the main reasons that farmers needed to till their soil was to control weeds. However, with the advent of herbicide-tolerant crops, that has changed. Now weeds can be controlled without tilling by using herbicides that manage the weeds and do not affect the crop – like corn, soybeans and canola.

Farmers recognize the need to take care of their soil. Together, reduced-till farming and herbicide-tolerant crops are helping farmers care for that soil and be more sustainable while making balanced meals accessible to all. This is just one example of how farmers are working to be more sustainable. For more information, check out the 2015 Monsanto Sustainability Report.

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