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To Till or Not to Till When Establishing a Pasture

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We’ve come a long way in agriculture during the last 100 years. Technology has made tremendous advancements in the way we prepare, plant, manage and harvest the crops that feed and clothe the world. Along with these technological improvements, our understanding of the natural processes involved has become clearer. For example, instead of looking at soil as merely a medium to grow our crops in, we now realize soil is a complex ecosystem rich with life of its own. It responds to everything we do to it, for better or for worse. This understanding, along with the desire to reduce soil erosion wherever possible, has led to a new trend in agriculture – no-till farming. Like its name implies, no-till involves seeding directly into undisturbed soil.


Steps to Successful Pasture Establishment

Should you consider no-till when establishing or renovating a pasture? That will depend on a few factors. There are pros and cons to both tilling and not tilling. First, we need to understand what needs to happen in order to successfully establish a pasture. In order to grow, pasture grass seeds need adequate seed-to-soil contact. Once this requirement is met, the seeds need to be able to develop without competition from aggressive weeds. Weed competition is one of the major causes of poor pasture establishment. Water is also mandatory for seedling growth and development. Once a pasture has been established, it needs plenty of nutrients to continue to grow and thrive year after year.


Conventional Tillage

The biggest benefit tillage provides is a fresh, smooth soil surface for planting. Tillage is a very effective way to maximize seed-to-soil contact either by drill-seeding or broadcasting. With conventional tillage, weeds and other vegetation are removed and incorporated into the soil leaving a bare seedbed. This method has been used for generations. Conventional tillage techniques are well-known within the agricultural industry, and the equipment needed is widely available. In organic agricultural production, tillage is the primary method of weed control since synthetic herbicides are not allowed. Tilled fields are also quicker to warm up in the spring than no-till fields.



However, the benefits of no-till are hard to ignore. With no-till, soil erosion is significantly reduced as vegetation is left on the soil surface instead of removed and tilled under. Water infiltration increases, along with the amount of organic matter in the soil. The higher levels of organic matter contribute to better fertility, soil health and moisture availability. Soil microbes, as well as beneficial fungi and earthworms, thrive under no-till practices. Because you don’t have to run expensive machinery over your fields as much with no-till, there are also some significant money savings along with reduced soil compaction. Keep in mind that no-till tends to rely more on chemical weed control and requires specialized equipment that can seed into existing vegetation.


Consider Your Factors

The decision to use tillage vs. no-till will be based on many factors such as your climate, soil type, soil moisture content, slope, drainage and crop. These factors should be discussed with your local Cooperative Extension Service to determine which method would work best for your situation.

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