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Tillage decisions affect soybean profitability

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The On-Farm Network is looking for participants for a conventional vs. no-till in soybeans study. Tillage may affect yields positively but economic and environmental drawbacks should be considered. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Scott Nelson, On-Farm Network® Director

Whether to invest in tillage is an important decision in soybean production. In tough economic times due to low commodity prices, every input should be scrutinized for overall effect on per bushel production costs.

The costs below are the most recent estimates reported by Iowa State University (ISU) for various forms of tillage practiced in Iowa soybean production. These are average prices and include labor, fuel and depreciation. 

The cost per acre of soybean production by tillage system:

  • Subsoiling: $20.30
  • Moldboard plow: $18.45
  • Chisel plow: $17.60
  • Vertical tillage: $17.30
  • Field cultivator: $14.70
  • No-till: $0.00

ISU published results from a 10-year study at seven locations in Iowa.1  In this study, the researchers compared the yield and economic return in soybean production for various tillage systems.

Figure 1 shows the average yield for these systems across the locations and years of the research study. Figure 2 indicates partial profit for these systems, as yield multiplied by a futures price per bushel of soybeans ($8.50) minus the cost of tillage.

It is important to note that while moldboard plowing was slightly higher yielding, no-till soybeans into corn stalks was $10 per acre more profitable due to the absence of tillage costs. 

The same ISU research report states that tillage in soybean is not necessary. Tillage in soybeans reduces profitability and increases rates of erosion. While moldboard plowing realized the second highest profits, this is not a long-term profitable investment given the increased rates of erosion associated with this practice.

No-till in soybeans can sometimes be significantly lower yielding. Figure 3 is a photo of a no-till soybean field planted in 2018. Note the significant stand gaps and uneven emergence, which will likely reduce yield. This field was planted with a high-speed air drill without the benefit of sufficient down-force regulation or residue management. Use planters in no-till soybeans equipped with row cleaners and the ability to regulate down-force pressure to avoid incidences of yield loss like this. 

The On-Farm Network is seeking farmers to cooperate in a study involving soybean yield comparisons with no-till vs. conventional tillage. An Iowa Soybean Association study was completed on five sites in 2018 and the On-Farm Network is looking to expand the study to 10 sites in 2019.

Please email: if you are interested in becoming involved with this project, or if you have comments on tillage in soybean production.

1 Al-Kaisi, M.M., S. Archontoulis, D. Kwaw-Mensah. 2016. Soybean Spatiotemporal Yield and Economic Variability as Affected by Tillage and Crop Rotation. Agron. J. 108:1–14


Figure 1. Average yield for the various tillage systems across seven locations and 10 years.
Figure 2. Partial profit for the various tillage systems in soybean production across seven locations and 10 years.
Figure 3. Example of a no-till soybean field planted with a high-speed drill not equipped with residue managers.

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For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.

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