Reduced tillage is one of the most essential conservation farming practices row crop farmers can adopt to conserve soil and improve water quality. Since the passage of Act 64—Vermont Clean Water Act in 2015, farmers are required to implement various solutions to reduce the payload of phosphorus runoff into Lake Champlain.

For hundreds of years, Vermont row-crop farmers and foresters followed practices that allowed tons of phosphorus to flow into the state’s rivers and lakes. Together with agricultural professionals and farmers, we are working to mitigate past damage and improve the results of future implementations.

As modern farming practices evolve, the Friends of Northern Lake Champlain (FNLC) and its allies want to help landowners transition to new methods that improve water quality.

Over time, progress is being made, and we’re working hard with area farmers to install best practice solutions that achieve two primary goals:

  1. Soil Conservation (which cause increased fertility and value on the farmland)
  2. Improved Water Quality (which will reduce nutrient content that leads to blue-green algal blooms)

We wish to achieve the goal of improved water quality for many years to come. Our mission indicates this, but we cannot go it alone, we need to help farmers and landowners implement solutions that improve soil conservation. You cannot have one without the other.

Reduced tillage is just one method to achieve the goal. It’s easy to mix up the terminology, so we want to define the differences for you.

  • No-tillage – Exactly what it indicates—you do not till the land when seeding
  • Reduced tillage/conservation tillage—means minimal tilling of the earth using specialized equipment

The best solution entirely depends on the composition of the soil on your land. Where reduced tillage can be utilized, you’ll end up with improved soil health and reduced phosphorous runoff.

Results of Reduced Tillage

As with any management change, improvement cannot be expected overnight. It may take a few growing seasons to master new techniques and overcome initial yield differences. Most landowners are noticing positive results in about three years with the implementation.

According to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy applied to USDA Census farm data for Vermont, reduced tillage on all row crops would provide the following advantages:

  • Reduced soil erosion equaling more fertile fields
  • 39% reduction in phosphorus runoff if reduced tillage was used on all Vermont row crop acres

We cannot deny results like this, talk with early adopters, and you’ll hear the same across the state.

Reduced Tillage Does Not Equal Reduced Yield

A common misconception is that reduced tillage practices also decrease your crop yield, known as yield drag. We’ve learned from UVM Extension’s research; this isn’t the case when implemented in areas where it is best suited. It is accurate; however, that reduced tillage is more challenging to manage in heavy clay soils that predominate in the Champlain Valley.

Soil types best suited for conservation tillage:

  • Sandy soil
  • Loam soil

UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils team and early other adopters can help you identify any problem areas. Together you will determine whether reduced tillage is the best option for your crops. What you really want to know, though, are what the advantages and disadvantages? Well, let’s take a look.

Advantages

One advantage of reduced tillage is minimal soil disturbance. The soil maintains organic matter and doesn’t erode keeping essential nutrients in your fields. You’ll have better crops and mitigate your impact on nearby waterways.

Another benefit is the low-cost to implement ($12-22 per pound phosphorous reduction) when compared with other agriculture Best Management Practices (BMPs).

Disadvantages

One disadvantage is often reduced tillage typically means having to spread manure on the surface without incorporating the manure into the soil.

We know manure spreading can run off more easily into waterways causing phosphorus to enter the lake. The result? Growth of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms hazardous to our lake’s ecosystem, as well as human and animal health.

Solutions to Fertilizing Reduced Tillage Fields

We encourage you to consider other solutions to field fertilization when applying conservation tillage. Outside of manure spreading, manure injection is the best solution because of its process. Farm equipment injects manure directly into the earth, and then soil covers the injection location. Ultimately, forcing nutrients directly into the ground and keeping it in the land instead of waterways.

Cover cropping is another solution to maintaining soil health, reducing phosphorus runoff, and improving soil quality. Typically, planted between the rows during the summer or immediately after fall harvest, it provides protection from raindrop erosion that occurs on bare, uncovered soil in late fall and the following spring.

Talk with your extension service to learn methods to reduce tillage, maintain soil, improve water quality, and isolate nutrient runoff.

Getting Help for Soil Conservation Practices

There are several ways you may seek assistance to conserve your soil.

  1. Reach out to UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils
  2. Contact the Farmers Watershed Alliance (FWA)
  3. Contact Friends of Northern Lake Champlain
  4. Talk with other conservation farm neighbors
  5. Attend UVM Extension No-Till and Cover Crop Meetings
  6. Attend annual FNLC, UVM Ext, FWA summer and winter meetings

We encourage you to work with our allies to initiate this BMP and assist in identifying whether conservation tillage is best suited for your land.

We often partner with both federal and state programs as well as UVM Extension to bring you training and opportunities to talk with farmers who’ve experienced the implementation of these practices. We can often help you source grants and needed funding.

UVM Extension and FWA offer yield drag test projects to test the efficacy of this practice on your land. Pilot projects can and will save you money because these are state-funded implementations reducing your financial burden.

It takes the efforts of multiple groups to implement these solutions for better farming conservation practices.

Need Funding Assistance?

Applying conservation farming practices doesn’t have to break the bank. We can help you write and source grants for projects on your land.