No-Till Agriculture in the USA

  • Jared MarguliesEmail author
Part of the Sustainable Agriculture Reviews book series (SARV, volume 9)


No-till farming is a form of conservation tillage in which crops are seeded directly into the soil through previous crop residues, most commonly managing weeds using broad-spectrum herbicides and increasingly, transgenic herbicide-resistant crop varieties. Today, nearly a quarter of US cropland is farmed using no-tillage methods, a phenomenon which has been repeatedly described as one of the greatest agricultural revolutions of modern times. No-till advocates promote this method for its ability to reduce soil erosion, sequester soil carbon, reduce agricultural runoff, and improve farmland wildlife habitat, all while maintaining or even improving crop yields. Problems of water quality and contamination, as well as newly emerging problems associated with herbicide-resistant weeds, however, exist for no-till. This article reviews current literature on specific problems related to no-till agriculture, including soil and water impacts, soil carbon sequestration and ­greenhouse gases, and herbicide-resistant weeds; as well as the potential future of no-till farming and alternative no-till strategies that may address these problems.

The major points are the following. (1) No-till farming practices frequently result in increased soil organic matter content, soil moisture content, and soil biodiversity compared to conventional plow-tillage systems. Bulk soil density is often higher under no-tillage systems, but there is also greater macropore structure under no-till because of the preservation of earthworm burrows compared to conventional tillage systems. No-till’s net benefits for preserving soil structure and biota are well-described and demonstrated. (2) Although many no-till advocates have suggested no-till could make a significant contribution to mitigating anthropogenic climate change via soil carbon sequestration, the most current research indicates that no-till’s potential contribution to reducing anthropogenic contributions to global climate change is limited.

(3) Rainfall intensity and timing of chemical applications significantly impact water contamination from surface and subsurface runoff under no-till management. Because of increased macropore structure, no-till systems can result in increased transport of agrochemicals, nutrients, and animal wastes in subsurface water compared to conventional tillage practices. Increased subsurface transport of chemicals may pose environmental and public health threats in no-till agriculture systems. (4) The emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds in no-till systems presents a major risk to the success of ­current no-till practices, which are entirely reliant on chemical weed suppression. Alongside the need for rapid development of novel herbicides and the diversification of herbicide application regimes, other no-till agricultural methods, such as organic no-till agriculture and perennial grain agriculture systems, should be further developed and prioritized for research to meet the challenges of both preserving environmental water quality as well as reducing soil erosion while protecting future food security.


No-till agriculture Agricultural sustainability Herbicides Herbicide-resistant weeds Mulch-farming Soil erosion Water quality Soil carbon sequestration Corn Belt 



I would like to thank Professor John Boardman for his encouragement and suggestions in the process of drafting this review.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography and the EnvironmentUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK
  2. 2.The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, Bloomberg School of Public HealthJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA

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