Is a No-Till Approach Right for Hemp Farming?

November 10, 2021

No-till farming, the practice of minimally disturbing the soil during cultivation, is growing in popularity with hemp cultivators. Additionally, with the cost of fertilizer, fuel, and other inputs on the rise at the moment, along with supply chain issues making the delivery of such inputs unpredictable, growers may be interested in no-till farming as an appealing alternative to conventional approaches. 

In this article, Hemp Benchmarks provides an introduction to no-till farming, including considerations for farmers thinking of adopting such an approach. As with many aspects of the young hemp industry, however, more research is needed into potential benefits and drawbacks specific to hemp producers.

How Old is the Practice of No-Till Farming?

No-till farming goes back to prehistoric times and is believed to be one of the earliest forms of cultivation. Research on modern versions of no-till agriculture began in the United States in the 1960s and has been progressing steadily since then. Earlier this year, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) blog noted that “conservation tillage practices – particularly continuous no-till – can save time and money compared to conventional tillage.”

The USDA publication says that continuous no-till cultivation has been adopted across 21% of all cultivated cropland in the U.S. It also mentioned the benefits of no-till farming, from improving soil health to the reduction of fuel and labor costs.

How Does No-Till Hemp Farming Affect the Soil?

Jared Sherman is the owner and operator of Mellow Moose Hemp in Texas. He has been growing organic hemp for five years; first in Oregon, and for the past two years he has been cultivating an acre of hemp annually at his operation near Austin. While his original goal was to produce the best commercially-available hemp flower on the market, he has become increasingly involved with no-till hemp farming. 

“It’s mother nature’s way of farming,” he told Hemp Benchmarks. Minimally disturbing the soil, he noted, allows the establishment and preserves the continuity of beneficial organisms, including certain bacteria and invertebrates such as earthworms. It also assists with the development of mycorrhizae, a symbiotic relationship between plant roots and fungi. “These bacteria and fungi have developed over time to do one job,” Sherman said. “Everytime you till [the soil], you destroy the progress these organisms have made.”

How Much Upkeep Does a No-Till Hemp Operation Need?

No-till farming has its own challenges, however. “What you save … when you do no-till farming, in fuel, labor, and maybe some erosion concerns, that type of thing, you absolutely, positively, have to follow up with management of the no-till system,” Thomas Keene, Agronomy Specialist at the University of Kentucky’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, told Hemp Benchmarks. “You have to be a little more cognizant of your planting depth; you have to be in the correct zone for the species. You have to be more aware of weeds [that are] waiting to germinate and compete with the new crop you desire to have established. Fertility concerns; you just have to do a better job of watching the crop as it germinates.”

What Do Farmers Considering Switching to No-Till Have to Consider?

Jared Sherman acknowledged that no-till farming does not work for every hemp operation, or in every situation. “As a commercial farmer … you need to make money and sometimes you have to make a financial decision,” he said. “If you’re going to do this on a farming scale and … not just for a hobby garden, no-till is more of an investment, long term, than it is a flip.”

He gave an example of a half-acre of land he originally planned to cultivate using no-till practices. “However it was plagued by floods, it didn’t have a lot of shade so it was constantly being baked by the sun and it would get dusty,” he remembered. “There was a lot of limestone beneath it. The soil itself was very poor in health. It needs to be tilled, because a no-till approach to dead soil doesn’t help improve in any sort of time frame. The idea behind no-till is to take advantage of time that’s past and, in the long term, to not destroy anything that you are trying to build.”

If you start with poor soil, Sherman said, “you need to start tilling and improving the soil initially, to bring your carbon ratios up, to bring your organic matter up, to bring in the right elements, so that you then have a good place to begin your no-till approach to farming.”

He also noted that no-till may not give a hemp farmer the yields they want in the short term, “but if you’re trying to do this long term it’s worth keeping this philosophy in mind as you take steps forward. Maybe that means that you till once your first year, because your soil isn’t great, and the following year you don’t till at all.”

Why are Cover Crops Important with No-Till Hemp Farming?

According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources website, keeping a no-till field covered with crop residue or cover crops are keys to making the practice successful. “Too often, producers think that no-till is planting a crop one year without doing tillage,” the site noted. “No, it’s continuously planting crops, every year, without tillage to get the full benefits of no-till.” 

Thomas Keene at the University of Kentucky said that using a cover crop of cereal grains, brassica (plants like cabbage, turnip, Brussels sprouts, and mustards), or some type of legume keeps no-till soil stable, while helping to suppress weeds. “In the last 10 years cover crops have probably gotten more press and more interest in farming than anything else,” he said, “and rightly so, because we’re just beginning to discover the full advantages that cover crops give us. Stabilizing the soil, continuing to harvest the energy from the sun. Cover crops work extremely well with hemp rotation.”

Is There Enough Data on No-Till Farming’s Effectiveness?

Keene believes that no-till farming can work well with hemp and that the practice will become an integrated part of the agricultural landscape for hemp fiber and grain. No-till farming’s popularity with hemp cultivators, he noted, is probably linked to the practice’s relative success when farming on less-than-ideal or marginal ground where no-till can help with soil erosion and other issues. One major challenge, however, is the lack of current research on hemp itself. 

Keene pointed out that he has seen “great successes and great failures” with no-till hemp operations. “We have such variability with our seed, with our germination,” he added. “We have issues like bird predation. We need to do a ton more research on seed viability: is it vulnerable to soil-borne diseases, nematodes, other pathogens, once it’s in the soil. We see those issues in both scenarios, both in no-till and in conventional plantings.”

There are different beliefs, for example, about whether or not no-till hemp farming affects crop yield. “When soil transitions to a no-till system, yield reduction is usually a temporary thing,”  Cynthia Daley, Director and co-founder of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture & Resilient Systems at Chico State University in California, told the Civil Eats website this past spring. 

Keene noted that questions about crop yield and other important factors are hampered by the lack of data in regard to hemp. “If you increase your management, because you’re decreasing your fuel and your labor costs, and take care of fertility, doing all the things right, we would not anticipate a statistical difference in yield for the most part, because we just don’t have the research out there.”

That lack of research, he added, is affecting the whole hemp industry. ”The volume of research needed in this industry is just cataclysmic,” he said. “But every day that goes by, we’re beginning to scratch the surface and get that data. And five, 10 years from now we’ll be better equipped to put the data out there that says, this is in fact what we get, whether it’s no-till versus conventional, or grain variety A versus grain variety B. It just takes time.”

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