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Differences in Tilled and No Till Soils – A Demonstration

In this video agronomist Mark Scarpitti of USDA-NRCS Ohio state demonstrates the differences between tilled and no-till soils by doing two simple tests.

Slide test: In this test, a piece of soil is put in water to check how soil structure is held together. When water starts to rush into the porous spaces in the soil, tilled soil starts falling apart as there are nothing to hold the soil particles together. In no-till soil polysaccharides, glycogen and other matter produced by micro organisms binds the soil particle together and the soil structure is maintained.

Runoff test: In this test, mimicking the rain droplets, water is allowed to fall on the soil surface. As water hits the tilled soil surface, it does not infiltrate the soil, but instead it dissolves and seals off the top layer of soil, resulting in runoff.

Further Reading:

Ravindra Krishnamurthy

Ravindra Krishnamurthy is a freelance science writer covering science, tech, the environment, health, food, and culture.

11 Comments

    1. Just be with farmer for two seasons u will better understand.. though Ray has give valuable inputs but they r very few.. u better b a farmer or b with farmer u will get through insights

      1. My father was a farmer, and still I don’t get why we should plough. When I was young, there would be loads of seagulls following the tractor plowing, but now there are no more birds after the plough, and skylarks cannot be found anymore. I used to enjoy their singing immensely. Now, the soils are basically dead.

  1. I know Mark – he is a terrific person and is passionate about soil health. Thank you for sharing this. Koen, we started plowing for weed control and “seedbed preparation”. We keep doing it because a disfunction soil becomes addicted to mechanical and chemical inputs, and to weaning our soils off these results in potential loss of harvest and yield… and because the human mind is hard to change. We’re trying our best out here.

  2. So in permaculture how do you change the crop? Pulling out the old crop fro the soil sort of tills it in a way. What is the next step?

    1. @ Alex, harvest if you can by leaving the root system in the ground. (doesn’t apply to root crops) If you are harvesting just for your plate then you just pick a few leaves as you need it. If the crop is an annual then eventually it will die back, so I would just leave the root system in the ground so as not to disturb the soil. Keep the mulch up. Comfrey makes a brilliant mulch. It is the gift that keeps on giving, (except in winter).

  3. @Alex,
    Move away from annual grains to tree crops, shrubs, berries, perennial and self-seeding annual vegetables. Polycultures including integration with rotational grazing, pasture chickens, turkeys, ducks etc. . .Eliminate biocide and NPK fertilizer applications by the above.

  4. The college trained farmer I’m married to deeply surprised me by assuming that the ‘falling apart’ soil was the good one – better for the roots to infiltrate. I’m doing my best to re-educate him, but wonder if this reaction might be more widespread, and if so, whether a bit more explanation might be needed. All farmers would hate to think that their downstream neighbour was receiving topsoil free when the heavy rain arrives.

  5. Ah. Comment above was with reference to another demonstration I’d seen – before watching this version – sorry! I’ll show this to him, much better explanation here.

  6. I watched the demonstration. Around 1994 I toured ponds in Michigan. One was utterly dead from phosphorus run off. Fertilizer applications near the Mississippi R kill every living thing in the soil, then it is planted with fertilizer and cultivated with pesticides. It’s a major cause of dead zone in the Gulf near Mississippi delta. Runoff from Chicago is only 5% of the cause of that dead zone. How can we change our farming methods? I’m not a farmer.

    Also, What about the tractor operators that spreads that fertilizer? Are they healthy? There’s a warning sign on their rigs.

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