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Use min-till or no-till farming

The guidance on this page is for SFI pilot participants only. Please visit GOV.UK for the official Sustainable Farming Incentive scheme guidance.

Find out how land managers can improve the health of soil by using min-till (minimum tillage) or no-till (no tillage) cultivation.

If you’re completing this action as part of the Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot, how you do it is up to you.

The advice on this page can help you get better environmental and business benefits, but you do not have to follow it to get paid.

About min-till and no-till farming

Min-till is cultivating land using mechanical methods other than ploughing. This will reduce the amount you disturb the soil by:

  • using shallower cultivations, only to a depth of 15cm
  • not turning over the soil
  • limiting the number of cultivation passes (times machinery goes over the same piece of ground)
  • using lighter cultivation methods such as tines, cultivators or light discs

For no-till (zero-till), you do not use cultivation machinery when you prepare the land for crops. This reduces soil disturbance. You use a direct drill to plant crops.

Benefits of min-till and no-till

Min-till and no-till will:

  • improve soil health, which can help crops establish quicker over time
  • reduce damage to soil structure
  • help to keep water in the soil, increasing protection from flooding and drought
  • reduce soil runoff, which causes water pollution and harms aquatic life
  • help keep nutrients in the soil, reducing the need for fertiliser
  • keep more organic matter in the soil, improving its quality
  • reduce harm to earthworms and other organisms which help to improve the fertility and structure of soil
  • reduce labour and fuel costs, operator time and greenhouse gas emissions from cultivation

The less you disturb the soil, the greater these benefits are.

You must follow the farming rules for water. These require you to take steps to stop manure, fertiliser or soil getting into water bodies.

Where to use min-till or no-till

Min-till and no-till are suitable for most soils but work best on drier, more stable and well-drained soils. They do not work as well on light soils which have a weaker structure.

They are best for re-seeding grassland and to establish common arable crops like:

You can also use min-till and no-till to establish crops like beans and sugar beet. This is because min and no-till equipment and techniques have been developed to sow seeds for these types of crops.

Min and no-till are less suitable for field vegetables or forage crops. It can be difficult to find suitable equipment to sow seeds, and yields may fall.

You can use min-till and no-till with either strip tillage, conservation agriculture or cover crops to improve soil health and crop yields.

Use min-till rather than no-till for:

  • soils prone to compaction, like very heavy clay soils
  • soils that crust (cap), reducing water infiltration and increasing runoff, like light sandy soils

Min-till or no-till on historic features

Make sure you know the location and extent of any historic features on your land. Register and request an SFI Historic Environment Farm Environment Record (SFI HEFER) to learn more about historic features on your land.

If you have historic features, you can best protect them by converting them to grassland.

If you cannot take the land out of cultivation, you may be able to use min-till (to a depth of 10cm) on some buried features. For other buried features and above ground features like earthworks you must only use direct drilling (no-till). Direct drilling helps protect historic features.

Check your Conservation of Scheduled Monuments in Cultivation (COSMIC) assessment, if you have one. Follow its advice about suitable management for your land.

If you do not have a COSMIC assessment, you must use direct drilling (no-till) farming. Contact your local Historic England office to find out more about COSMIC.

If you have previously been advised by Historic England to use min-till on buried features you should continue to do so.

You must find out if you need consent for work on a scheduled monument.

Before you start to use min-till or no-till

If your land is part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) you must find out if you need consent before you start.

Ask your agronomist for help in assessing your soil type, structure and suitability for min-till or no-till. These methods are more successful on soils with good structure and drainage.

To improve weed control, you can lightly cultivate after harvest to create a stale seedbed. This will encourage weed germination. Spray these weeds with a non-selective herbicide before sowing.

You may need to reduce soil compaction before starting a no-till or min-till system or during the rotation.

You can use a soil management plan to work out how min-till or no-till can fit in with your wider farm operations.

Chop and spread the harvested straw of a previous cereal crop across the soil. This will act as a mulch. Spread it evenly to make sure it does not block drills or cause uneven germination.

Get the right machinery

Speak to machinery manufacturers for advice on adapting to min-till or no-till. You’ll need to adapt existing cultivation equipment and seed drills or buy a direct drill (also known as a no-till or zero-till drill). Alternatively, use a contractor with min-till or no-till machinery.

Most no-till farmers invest in a direct drill or autocasting system, depending on the crop being grown. While this can be a big upfront cost, no-till saves more money than min-till in the longer term. This is because there is no need to buy, maintain and run deep cultivation machinery.

Check if you can get funding for new min-till or no-till equipment.

Check pesticide use

Check whether pesticides that you’ve used on your land are suitable for min-till or no-till. You may need to plough the soil before you start so they do not remain at the surface and damage crops.

How to use min-till or no-till farming

When preparing land using min-till, make sure machinery will not go deeper than 15cm or turn over the soil.

Machinery you can use includes:

  • shallow cultivators with discs or tines
  • spring-loaded or rotary tillers
  • harrows
  • rollers

Try to reduce the number of cultivation passes to reduce the amount you disturb the soil.

Only use ploughs, heavy deep discs or power harrows if soil is compacted. Do not use them more often than every 3 or 4 years.

If soil compaction occurs, you could use ploughs, discs or harrows every 3 to 4 years.

For no-till:

  • do not use cultivation machinery between harvesting and sowing crops
  • sow cover crops straight after harvesting arable crops to build organic matter
  • use herbicides or rolling to destroy cover crops before sowing spring crops
  • sow spring crops using a direct drill on top of cover crops

You can control weeds using herbicide. If you’re an organic farmer, reduce weeds using cutting, crimping and rolling.

Sow your crops

Consider using pest-resistant seed varieties as this will reduce the need to use pesticides later.

Sow crops when the soil is moist, but not after heavy rainfall. You can leave residues of previous crops on the soil to build up its organic matter. This may help rainfall soak into the soil better and reduce runoff.

For min-till, use a seed drill adapted for min-till or a direct drill which will not go deeper than 15cm.

For no-till, use a direct drill or autocast system, depending on the crop.

Re-seed grass by direct drilling:

  1. Graze or top the grass.
  2. Spray the existing sward.
  3. Place seeds in a slot 2cm to 5cm apart.

Re-seed grass with min-till:

  1. Cultivate up to 7.5cm deep, in several directions to break up clods of soil.
  2. Roll to create a firm seedbed.
  3. Place the seed on the soil surface.
  4. Roll again.

Working on historic features

On historic features, do not grow crops or plants whose roots could damage the features. These include:

  • potatoes
  • tillage radish
  • sugar beet
  • miscanthus,
  • deep rooted legumes like sainfoin and lucerne
  • short rotation coppice
  • maize

Keep vehicle or livestock access routes away from historic features. Ideally this should be at least 6 metres from the feature. You can create an access route through a different field where the feature covers the whole field. You can use existing surfaced tracks.

On flat land, check the depth of undisturbed soil over historic features at least every 10 years.

On slopes, check the soil depth every 3 to 5 years to make sure there’s no soil erosion. You can get help from a geoarchaeologist or geotechnical engineer to do this.

If you see historic material like flints, pottery or building material in the soil you may need to remove the land from cultivation.

Do not create beetle banks on historic features.

After you start min-till or no-till farming

Crop yields can sometimes decline during the first 3 years, especially if you’re using no-till. Yields normally recover as the health of the soil improves.

Crop establishment

Crop residues can retain nitrogen, which is needed in the soil to help crops grow. This can delay crops establishing in the short term. Over time, microbes in the soil will adapt so nitrogen can be absorbed by crops better. This helps crops to establish quicker.

Spreading chopped straw evenly across the field using a straw rake can help. You can also use a small amount of fertiliser on spring crops. Do not use this on autumn crops as there is a higher risk of nutrients polluting water (leaching).

Weed, pest and disease control

Weed, pest and disease control can be difficult in min-till and no-till systems.

To control weeds:

  • increase your seed rate
  • rotate the type of crops you grow from year to year
  • sow cover crops to improve the health of soil
  • use non-selective herbicides before drilling

You may need to control slugs during crop establishment.

Integrated pest management can help reduce pests. You can create habitats like buffer strips or beetle banks for natural predators. For min-till, roll seedbeds after drilling to help deter slugs.

To limit the use of pesticides you can use precision pesticide application systems, like a spot sprayer or weed wiper.

Severe weed, pest or crop disease problems

If weeds, pests, or crop diseases severely affect your crops, and none of the control methods have worked, ask your agronomist for advice.

You can consider rotational ploughing every 3 to 4 years as a last resort.