Organic no-till basics

Organic no-till is a rotational tillage system which combines the best aspects of no-till while satisfying the requirements of the USDA organic regulations. Organic no-till is both a technique and tool to achieve the farmer’s objectives of reducing tillage and building soil health. It is also a whole farm system. And these techniques and tools can work equally well on all farms whether or not they are organic.

Organic no-till can help your farm in a number of different ways but it is imperative that the system be implemented in a way that encourages success. Here are just a few of the key concepts to think about:

• Organic no-till depends on the cover crops to provide the nutrition needs of the cash crop. Of course, the nutrients from the cover crops are not available immediately. They are partially available the first year and partially available in successive years.  If your soil is low in organic matter, or if you have not farmed organically before, it may take a while to build the soil.  Think of it as money in the bank. You’re investing in your soil, and as time progresses you will be able to cash in on the dividends or interest from your account.

• Kill is achieved with a roller-crimper rather than synthetic herbicides. The roller-crimper is a specialized tool designed by Rodale Institute. It works by rolling the cover crop plants in one direction, crushing them and crimping their stems. The roller-crimper can be front-mounted on a tractor, freeing up the rear of the tractor for a no-till planter, drill or transplanter to plant directly into the rolled cover crop. While other tools, such as a stalk chopper, rolling harrows, and mowers have been used for this purpose, the roller-crimper has several advantages over other tools.

• The rolled cover crop acts as a mulch, preventing annual weeds from growing through the entire season. To achieve adequate weed control, the cover crop should be planted at a high rate and produce approximately 3 to 4 tons to the acre of dry matter. For this reason, cover crops that yield a high amount of biomass work best for the no-till system. It’s also important to select cover crops with a carbon to nitrogen ratio higher than 20:1.  The higher the ratio, the more carbon, and the more slowly the crop will break down.  This will provide consistent weed management through the season.


Cover crops are an essential part of any organic system but are especially crucial to the success of no-till in an organic operation and provide a multitude of benefits:

Increase soil organic matter
Organic no-till is an intensive system which requires at least 3 to 4 tons of dry matter per acre to be effective. Cover crops are grown to their full potential, instead of being tilled in at an earlier growth stage. This means that, in general, the organic matter will be higher in carbon and lower in nitrogen making for long-lasting benefits as mulch for weed management.

Provide year-round cover for the soil
Covering the soil increases infiltration, reduces evaporation, stabilizes soil temperatures, provides habitat for soil life, and reduces soil crusting.

Decrease erosion
The roots of the cover crop stabilize soil and reduce runoff, while the above-ground portion of the plants protects the soil against the destructive force of raindrops. In an organic no-till system, actively growing cover crops (or, the rolled and killed cover crops) are in place during key times when erosion can occur, including spring melt, winter thaws, and summer storms.

Capture, hold and stabilize nutrients
Many cover crops (also called “catch crops”) are excellent scavengers of nitrogen and other nutrients. Rye, in particular, can scavenge 25%-100% of residual nitrogen left behind from the previous crop. As covers are rolled down and begin to decompose, this nitrogen is slowly released for use by the subsequent cash crops. Buckwheat is especially good at capturing phosphorus and releasing it for use by cash crops. Cover crop roots can also forage deeper in the soil, bringing calcium and potassium up from untapped soil layers. Unlike chemical fertilizers, organic amendments are more likely to provide a slow release of nutrients.

Increase biological activity
Organic no-till increases diversity on the farm by providing year-round habitat and minimizing soil disturbance. Cover crops provide roots which nourish microorganisms and stabilize organic matter. Aboveground, beneficial insects find both habitat and nectar sources which may lessen the severity of pest insect problems.

Reduce field operations
In organic no-till, the yearly field operations can be as few as two: one pass to roll the cover crop and plant, and another to harvest the crop. Additional field operations may be used at other points in the rotation to establish the cover crops; however, these crops generally don’t require any cultivation to manage weeds.

Save energy
According to some estimates, up to 80% of the energy used in the production of corn is conserved by converting to organic no-till. While the production system may require approved organic fertilizers, energy savings are realized through the elimination of conventional nitrogen fertilizer.

Provide non-chemical weed management
For organic farmers, weed management is ranked as the number one challenge in most surveys. Organic no-till can help by breaking weed cycles and by providing cover through much of the growing season.

Getting Started

Here are some suggestions about how to get started—without planting a single seed. The following ideas will help you become a successful organic no-till farmer, while managing the risks of adjusting to a new system.

Reading and learning
Find out as much as you can about which cover crops do well in your area. This might include talking to other organic and no-till farmers, taking advantage of resources available at your local Extension office, and following up by consulting reference guides.

Assess your farm
Look at your soil types, the crops you intend to plant, the equipment and resources you have and the time you have to explore new planting systems. Like any changes on your farm, knowledge is power and understanding how new cover crop management tools will fit into your operation will be critical to your success.

Source local seed
Locally adapted cover crop seed will give you an edge, providing a crop that’s already adapted to your area.  It will be less likely to winter kill and may perform better on your farm. Since it may take some time to track down a local source, you should begin early.  This is especially true for organic seed since quantities may be limited.

Test plot
Perhaps the biggest source of risk comes from transitioning to a new management system and a completely new technology. During the first couple of years, the learning curve may be fairly steep.  It’s a good idea to start with a small, experimental area or test plot on your farm.


Watch the roller-crimper in action or get more in-depth details on our organic no-till research {LEARN MORE}


Jeff Moyer
Farm Director
Phone: 610-683-1420

Dr. Gladis Zinati
Interim Research Director
Phone: 610-683-1402

Darlene Livingston
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Farm Link, Inc.

Jared Grissinger
Division Chief for Economic Development
PA Department of Agriculture
Phone: 717-705-9513

This material is based upon work supported by Pennsylvania Farm Link and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of Pennsylvania Farm Link or the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

20 Responses to “Organic no-till basics”

  1. matt kochka

    Nice article… I hope more people start working out the kinks in organic no-till. One factor you forgot to mention is the increased carbon sequestration/ reduced CO2 respiration associated with no-till.
    Microbial activity/decomposition is encouraged by tilling/oxygen infusion, resulting in increased respiration (oxygen in; carbon dioxide out).
    This increase in activity related to tillage is not in conflict with increased microbial biomass and diversity related to no-till. High oxygen environments just encourage a smaller number of species that focus on rapid decomposition.

  2. Peter Garnham

    What we all need is a way to get a roller-crimper. We envy Jeff’s ability to get one made, but we don’t all have welding shops available! Can you get a fabricator to make these and put them on the market?

  3. karen bieling

    Glad this system is above ground! This year will be my 3rd year for no till on home garden plot.
    Dont know if my reply/comment is what you wanted however I am glad you posted this article!

    • amanda

      Hi Karen, We value all our reader comments! What cover crop do you use for your garden-scale no-till?

  4. Andrew Zino


    We run a small 10ha property as an organic farm on the Portuguese island of Madeira at 600m altitude and we are growing our growing areas and offer.

    We currently grow lemons, kiwi, strawberries, vegetables, blue berry and also do organic chicken and lamb for meat. Also grow some tropical fruit like tree tomato, avocado , passion fruit, etc
    We are looking at growing our offer to include pigs as well as seedlings and compost.

    Weeds are our major challenge due to our year round mild (eternal spring) climate with:
    – bracken (at 600m farm) in the pasture and lemons in ex-eucalyptus land – too acidic / need to lime more ? as bracken not everywhere)
    – grass – not quite sure how to identify this, but it is a vicious and infesting runner – think it is a “Elymus repens” – animals don´t appreciate it
    – Bidens pilosa L. at warmer / lower level farm

    Any pointers on how best to manage these weeds?

    Many thanks

  5. amanda

    Hi Andrew: Weeds in an eternal-spring climate? And we think we have weed pressure! We haven’t done research on weeds in your region, but we might know some folks who have. We’ll ask around and see if we can send you any tips or leads.

  6. Andrew Zino

    Many thanks for your reply.
    The other weed we have is nutgrass (Cyperus rotundus) which also inhibits growth of other plants. To date, hand weeding is the only solution … any tips?

    I would also like thoughts/experience on no-tillage / cover crop recomendation and roller-crimper experience for horticulture / vegetable operations. At 600m the winters can be quite wet and cold (but hardly freezes) and we do observe errosion/run off soil if no crops are in the ground.

    Are there certain cover crops which:
    – are better “bio-drills” with long roots
    – better cover crop (organic mater producer)
    – are better at capturing/relesing nutrients
    – could also produce grain / forrage for animal (chicken, lamb, pig)

    Many thanks for any pointers

  7. Sherry

    Is there a crisper for backyard gardens? Like a push mower?
    Thank you,

  8. Seth Gardner

    ? What stage of maturity should the rye be at for us to roll down to plant our no till corn crop? I assume the plant should be ready to die so flowering and right before the seeds form.

  9. roger and nilam engstrom

    Rye should be at boot stage.
    The crimper must crimp the stem in at least 3 places.
    Planting should be in same direction as crimping to prevent or minimize planter draging rye

  10. Jesse Taylor

    Thanks! This article was great. It would be really helpful though if there were some resources or examples of farms that are successfully practicing organic no-till agriculture.

  11. Amanda W.

    When using cover crop and the crimping system do you or can you harvest the rye or the cover crop you decide to use? Or do you leave the harvest because that’s what helps put the nutrients back into the soil. New to getting into farming so trying to understand.

    Thank you


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