No-till farming increased yields consistently over about three decades on cropland in southwest Michigan, according to new research from Michigan State University.

Each year, “the yield in no-till treatments increased versus the yield in tilled treatments,” MSU ecologist Nick Haddad said. “I would have expected a point where the yields and economic benefits reached their peak, but they continued to rise. It was jaw-dropping.”

"Current data show that the increase in yield for corn, soy and wheat (in rotation) after 30 years is 40 bushels per acre (equivalent to one additional ton per hectare)," MSU said.

The study, conducted at the Kellogg Biological Station in southwest Michigan, shows the importance of long-term agricultural research, said Haddad, who noted research grants usually last five years.

“Our study shows that research of such short duration may be misleading,” Haddad said. “Certainly, for this study, there were many slices of time when we would have gotten the wrong answer, especially if the study had lasted less than 10 years.”

Initial economic losses in the study “reflected the costs inherent in new equipment, chemical costs and labor input needed at that time," Haddad said. "As these costs were met, profits rose. Even better, current farming practices eliminate these costs, such that the financial benefits of no-till practices accrue nearly immediately."

Tillage has large environmental costs, the paper says, “including decreased soil carbon, increased potentials for soil erosion, and poor soil structure.” No-till, on the other hand, “can often increase soil carbon, quality, and function, and reduce CO2 emissions when compared to conventional tilling practices.”

Farmers have been steadily reducing tillage, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. In 2017, cropland on which no-till practices were used topped 104.4 million acres, up 8% from the 2012 figure of 96.4 million acres. Cropland where intensive tillage practices were used fell from 105.7 million acres in 2012 to 80 million in 2017.

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