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Use No-Till to Reduce Winter Pasture Establishment Costs

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With the recent spike in the price of oil, many producers are increasingly concerned about production costs and the establishment of winter pasture (wheat, rye, oats, barley, ryegrass, etc.) is certainly no exception. Both fertilizer and fuel costs have increased substantially over the past year, making it increasingly difficult to squeeze a profit from agricultural production systems. I recently visited with a number of farmers and ranchers who are looking to reduce their input costs while maintaining comparable output. One way to accomplish this is to convert from conventional farming practices to no-till. Some advantages and disadvantages of no-till winter pasture establishment for grazing include:


  • Soil conservation from reduced runoff
  • Water conservation through increased infiltration rates and moisture holding capacity
  • Reduced bogging by livestock
  • Fewer delays in planting due to wet fields
  • Less time spent preparing fields for planting
  • Reduced fuel and labor costs - fewer men and less horsepower
  • Reduction in equipment needs


  • Requires different equipment - no-till drill and sprayer
  • Potential shift in weed species
  • Difficult to incorporate immobile fertilizer nutrients into the soil profile
  • Possibly a slight yield reduction

Since 1996, the Noble Research Institute, located in Ardmore, Okla., has been demonstrating no-till winter pasture establishment techniques with positive results. Once the pasture is grazed out from late May to early June, we begin preparations for fall planting. The no-till pasture is either summer fallowed using glyphosate or paraquat, or it is grazed by livestock during the summer and chemically burned down in late August just prior to planting. Each fall, we measure forage production by Dec. 1. The results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Average dry matter forage production for the eight years from 1996 to 2003 was 1,167 pounds/acre with yields ranging from 340 to 1,755 pounds. The vast difference in production between some years, as I'm sure you know, was a result of drought conditions.

The main advantage of this method of establishment has been a reduction in labor and equipment, the ability to plant under most conditions, soil stabilization and moisture retention and firmer ground for livestock. No-till farming may not be for you, but with the high cost of fuel, it is certainly a technique worth considering. Plus, it is environmentally friendly.

Chuck Coffey
Retired Pasture and Range Consultant