Nation's Farmers Gradually Drift to No-Till or Reduced-Till

Market to Market | Clip
Feb 2, 2024 | 6 min

The Biden Administration has taken up climate issues throughout their term whether through sequestering carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

This week, USDA officials highlighted small businesses owners who’ve received money to build renewable energy infrastructure and make energy efficient upgrades.

The genesis for these policies could be traced all the way back to the 1985 version of the Farm Bill. 

Farmers were doing some no-till before its inclusion in the measure and its scope has expanded since - as Colleen Bradford Krantz reports in our Cover Story.



Northwest Missouri farmer John Hickman remembers motorists slowing down to stare as they passed his first no-till field in 1983. The practice of leaving crop ground undisturbed until planting was uncommon enough that a lot of rubber-necking took place.

John Hickman, St. Joseph, Missouri: “I started on a road where everybody could see me. That was a mistake. And that drill, I had a lot of trouble… I had to stop and clean it out and everybody is going by, looking. They thought I was nuts. I know that. But I lived through it.”

After correcting the seed planting depth on the drill he had borrowed from the local Andrew County Soil & Water Conservation District, Hickman began to see the value of saving time and fuel with fewer trips across his fields. He soon bought his own no-till planting equipment.

John Hickman, St. Joseph, Missouri: “It took a while to get used to it… I found out if you no-till this ground for a couple years, that ground gets solid. Your combine won’t make hardly any tracks. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck… The main thing: I could farm more with less equipment and less time and didn’t have to have a whole lot of help.”

He ultimately converted all 1,200 acres of his corn and soybeans to no-till. While neighbors had to clean out their terraces after heavy rains filled them with runoff topsoil, Hickman, now retired, no longer needed to do so.

John Hickman, St. Joseph, Missouri: “When I was a child, we used to always, in the fall of the year, plow, plow everything…It was fun because you know, I still like to, even at my age today, I still like to turn that black dirt over and see that black dirt. And everybody does... It looked good until I probably got 45 years old. Then I figured out I’ve got to do something different because it’s taking too much time for as much ground as I was farming.”

Jump ahead 40 years and 74 percent of North Central and Midwest cropland acres are either no-till or reduced till. Now Hickman finds himself doing the rubber-necking when he sees someone tilling a field.

John Hickman, St. Joseph, Missouri: “I say, ‘What are doing that for. Why would they till that ground, steep ground? Why would they do that?’”

Nationwide, surveys conducted by the Natural Resources Conservation Service indicate that, as of 2016, one-third of the nation’s cultivated cropland – or 103 million acres - was farmed as continuous no-till, up from 20 percent a decade earlier. Another third was  reduced tillage, with the last third being tilled conventionally.

The East Central states and Northern Plains states have the highest adoption rates of continuous no-till, at 65 and 48 percent respectively.

Ted Utz, retired, Soil and Water Conservation: “In Andrew County for sure, we are probably two-thirds of it is no-till farm as opposed to reduced tillage or conventional tillage. With the new technology with the planters, and the herbicides chemicals, and the genetics of the seed and then the price of fuel, especially the price of fuel this year, anytime they can reduce trips, they are going to put more money into the bank at the end of the year.”

Ted Utz was an Andrew County Soil and Water Conservation agronomist who helped convince Hickman and other early adopters to try no-till.

Ted Utz, retired, Soil and Water Conservation: “You had 30 percent of the people were innovative and were trying to find new and better ways to make a living. Then if you got those people on board and going, then you had the other third that were followers that would follow those innovators and proceed ahead. And then you had the ones that, they weren’t going to change no matter what.”

Andrew County, along the Missouri River and prone to having more windblown loess soil, had serious erosion issues in the early 1980s. Much of the hilly ground has long since been terraced, but the high adoption rate of no-till farming was also seen as a key in reducing erosion.

Ted Utz, retired, Soil and Water Conservation: “Some fields were losing 30 to 40 tons of soil per acre per year. …Generally you can afford to lose 5 tons of soil per acre per year… In Andrew County, most of it is 10 or less right now and a high percentage of it is probably under 5 ton, especially with cover crops these days.”

As of 2016, cover crops were used on just 6 percent of cultivated acres nationwide. The 19 million acres with cover crops still represents an increase from a decade earlier, when it stood at just over 2 million acres.

In southwest Michigan, brothers Jake and Ryan Drozd say their family operation, Drozd Family Grain, has shifted some of their 7,200 acres to reduced or no-till, but not the majority due to their area’s climate and soils.

Jake Drozd, Allegan, Michigan: “I’d say 80 percent of our ground is tilled. And probably 20 percent is reduced till or no till. Our reason for that is we only live about 20 minutes from Lake Michigan and the problem there is the lake-effect snow; our ground doesn’t freeze in the winter like most places in the United States. And so our ground is real muddy…If we tried to plant no-till here, we’d break all of our equipment. It’s just there’s just too many…I mean we’ll get ruts that are that deep to that deep.”

The farm sits on a flat region of the state so they have a lower risk of erosion than hillier areas. Along with traditional fertilizers, Drozd Family Grain also uses microbe and compost mixtures on their fields to maintain the soil quality.

Ryan Drozd, Allegan, Michigan: “We’re trying everything we can to adapt to no-till as much as we can because…the less money we can spend on stuff, the better….We don’t want to harm the soil because that’s the fruit of our labor… I think the Corn Belt is pushing really strong for no-till and that’s a good thing. We should be.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz,