Farmland renters and owner-operators use similar levels of tillage intensity

Vertical bar chart showing Soil Tillage Intensity Ratings for select crops and survey years between 2011 and 2021.

USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers investigated whether tillage practices were different between farmers who were renters or farmers who owned the land. Farming systems that decrease soil disturbance and preserve more crop residue than conventional tillage may improve the soil, but these practices have upfront costs (in new machinery, for instance), and any soil health benefits captured by the operator may be delayed into the future, perhaps until after a new renter has taken over the land. For this reason, renters may be less inclined to adopt tillage practices that decrease soil disturbance. Researchers examined tillage practices as measured by the Soil Tillage Intensity Rating (STIR) values for five major crops (corn, soybeans, cotton, barley, and sorghum). STIR values are determined by the operational speed of tillage equipment, tillage type, depth of the tillage operation, and degree of disturbance of the soil surface. STIR values range from zero to 200, with lower values indicating less soil disturbance. Over the two survey years specific for each, both crop owner-operators and renters generally showed reductions in STIR values. For instance, on sorghum acres, the estimated average STIR value of owner-operators was 55 in 2011 and 48 in 2019. Both cash and share renters also reported engaging in practices that led STIR values to fall, with values by cash renters falling the most. Researchers found that all three groups exhibited similar rates of tillage intensity, indicating that they are responding to economic incentives presented by reduced tillage systems similarly. This can be attributed to the fact that although soil health benefits may only be seen in the medium-to-long term, reducing soil disturbance can result in time and energy savings immediately. This chart can be found in the ERS report Farmland Rental and Conservation Practice Adoption, published in March 2024.

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