Cost of Conventional Tillage and No-till Continuous Wheat
Production for Four Farm Sizes
By Francis M. Epplin, Curtis J. Stock, Darrel D. Kletke, and Thomas F. Peeper
Cropping alternatives in the Northwestern Oklahoma plains are limited as a result of
climate and soil type. Continuous monoculture hard red winter wheat is the
predominate crop. In 1975, more than 96 percent of the cropland in Garfield County,
Oklahoma was seeded to winter wheat. By 1995, the proportion seeded to wheat,
excluding land in the Conservation Reserve Program, had increased to more than 99
percent (Oklahoma Agricultural Statistics Service).
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The objective of this study was
to determine production costs
for both conventional tillage
and no-till for continuous
monoculture wheat production
in the southern Great Plains.
The reduction in the price of
glyphosate after the original
patent expired has improved the
relative economics of no-till for
continuous winter wheat.
However, if differences in the
opportunity cost of labor are
ignored, for some farm sizes,
total operating plus machinery
fixed costs are greater for the
F Fr ra an nc ci is s M M. . E Ep pp plli in n is a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at
Oklahoma State University. His research interests include production economics and
farm management. He received a Ph.D. from Iowa State University.
C Cu ur rt ti is s J J. . S St to oc ck k is a statistician with the Arizona Agricultural Statistics Service. He
earned both a B.S. and a M.S. in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State
D Da ar rr re ell D D. . K Klle et tk ke e is an emeritus professor, Department of Agricultural Economics at
Oklahoma State University. He developed the first computerized crop and livestock
enterprise budget generator.
T Th ho om ma as s F F. . P Pe ee ep pe er r is a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at
Oklahoma State University. His research interests include weed control in small
grains. He received a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.
Less than three percent of the wheat farms in the Prairie
Gateway use no-till (direct seeding) to produce wheat (Ali).
This includes wheat produced in rotations as well as wheat in
monoculture. Previous studies have identified several
impediments to the adoption of no-till for continuous
monoculture winter wheat production. The lack of an
inexpensive and effective herbicide program necessary to
control weeds throughout the summer from harvest in June until
planting in October has been an impediment. A no-till budget
prepared in 1994 included 4.5 pints per acre of glyphosate (four
pounds of emulsifiable concentrate per gallon) at $6 per pint
($48 per gallon) for a per acre cost of $27 per acre (Epplin, Al-
Sakkaf, and Peeper). In the Prairie Gateway, two thirds of the
farms that produce wheat, most with conventional tillage, use
no herbicide (Ali). The 1994 study found that the reduction in
tillage costs when switching from conventional tillage to no-till
was insufficient to offset the expected increase in herbicide
A second impediment was that some of the first generation no-
till grain drills did not always result in successful stands of
wheat. Wheat yields obtained from no-till systems were often
lower than yields obtained from conventional till systems
(Bauer and Black; Epplin, Al-Sakkaf, and Peeper; Heer and
Krenzer; Williams et al.). In some cases, the marginally
effective no-till drills may have been partly responsible for the
During the last decade, two changes have occurred that provide
justification for reevaluating the economics of no-till
monoculture wheat production for the region. First is the
development of more effective no-till grain drills and air
seeders. Second is the reduction in the price of glyphosate.
Generic glyphosate became available in 2000 after the original
patent expired. The price of glyphosate (four pounds of
emulsifiable concentrate per gallon) has declined from a U.S.
average of $45.50 per gallon in 1999 (USDA, 2003) to $20 per
gallon in 2004. The result of this change is that the cost of
herbicide to control summer weeds from harvest in June until
planting in October for continuous monoculture no-till winter
wheat production is less than half of what it was in 1990.
The general objectives of this study are to determine the
production costs for both conventional tillage and no-till (direct
seeded with a no-till drill or air seeder) continuous monoculture
wheat production in Oklahoma for farms of different size.
More specifically, the objectives are to determine the costs of
conventional tillage and no-till management farm practices for
each of four farm sizes (320, 640, 1,280, and 2,560-acres) from
monoculture wheat used to produce grain.
The number and type of field operations (tillage, seeding,
herbicide application, insecticide application, fertilizer
application, and harvest) for both conventional tillage and no-
till production systems are listed in Table 1. For the
conventional tillage system it was assumed that the field would
be tilled after harvest in June with either a moldboard plow
(20%) or chisel (80%). It was assumed that 20 percent of the
farm would be plowed each year so that each field is plowed
with a moldboard once in five years. A disk operation is
budgeted for August followed by urea (46-0-0) application and
disk operation in September. A final tillage operation is
conducted in October prior to seeding with a conventional drill
or conventional air seeder. For the no-till system, glyphosate
applications are budgeted for June, August, and prior to planting
in October. A no-till drill or no-till air seeder is used to plant
the wheat in October. An April insecticide application is
budgeted for both systems. Table 2 includes a list of the
operating input prices and application rates for both systems.
Applications of fertilizer, seed, and insecticide are assumed to
be the same for both systems.
Available tractors and machines were determined from personal
interviews and discussions with dealers and confirmed by
information posted on manufacturers' Web sites. These
discussions resulted in three important assumptions. First, it
was assumed that all wheat produced would be custom
harvested and hauled, typical for the area. The machinery
complements do not include combines and trucks. Second, it
was assumed that herbicide, fertilizer, and insecticide would be
custom-applied on the two small farms but farmer-applied on
the two large farms. The machinery complements for the 1,280
and 2,560-acre farms include fertilizer applicators and sprayers.
Third, it was assumed that air seeders rather than grain drills
would be budgeted for the 2,560-acre farm.
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The list prices for drills and air seeders as reported in Table 3
show that the relative cost difference between conventional and
no-till seeding equipment depends upon machine size. A 10-
foot no-till drill costs almost three times as much as a 10-foot
conventional drill; a 20-foot no-till drill costs more than twice
as much as a 20-foot conventional drill. However, a 36-foot no-
till air seeder costs only 30 percent more than a 36-foot
conventional air seeder.
MACHSEL is a machinery complement selection software
program developed by Kletke and Sestak. It enables a user to
assemble a set of tractors and machines that can perform the
budgeted field operations in the expected time available. For
this study, fieldwork day probability distributions based upon
historical weather of central Oklahoma and clay loam soils were
used (Kletke and Sestak). The 85 percent probability level was
used meaning that machines were sized to accomplish the work
in the appropriate time period in 17 of 20 years. Candidate
machines were selected based on farm size, estimated fieldwork
days, machines available, and required field operations.
Table 3 includes a list of the selected machines for each farm
size for both production systems. Parameters, including field
efficiency, draft, speed, repair factors, and depreciation costs,
were based upon Agricultural Machinery Management Data
Standards estimates as published by the American Society of
Agricultural Engineers (ASAE). Diesel fuel price was budgeted
at $1.00 per gallon, interest rate at $0.09 per dollar per year
borrowed, and insurance at 0.006 of average value. A tax rate
of 0.01 of purchase price was assumed.
The machinery complement for the 320-acre conventional
tillage farm includes a 95 horsepower tractor matched with a
plow, chisel, disk, and conventional drill. The 320-acre no-till
farm includes a 95 horsepower tractor and a 10-foot no-till drill.
For the 640-acre conventional tillage farm a 155 horsepower
tractor is matched with a plow, chisel, disk, and conventional
drill. The no-till farm includes only a 155 horsepower tractor
and a 20-foot no-till drill.
The machinery complement for the 1,280-acre conventional
tillage farm includes two tractors (155 and 170 horsepower),
sprayer, fertilizer spreader, plow, chisel, disk, and conventional
drill. The 1,280-acre no-till farm machinery complement
includes two tractors (95 and 155 horsepower), sprayer,
fertilizer spreader, and no-till drill. The complement assembled
for the 2,560-acre conventional tillage farm includes three
tractors (95 and two 255 horsepower), sprayer, fertilizer
spreader, plow, two chisels, two disks, and a conventional air
seeder. The 2,560-acre no-till farm complement includes two
tractors (95 and 255 horsepower), sprayer, fertilizer spreader,
and a no-till air seeder.
Table 4 includes estimates of production costs for both systems
across the four farm sizes. Figure 1 includes a chart of the
average machinery investment per acre. The difference in
average machinery investment between the conventional tillage
and no-till machinery complements ranges from $22 per acre
for the 640-acre farm to $56 per acre for the 2,560-acre farm.
The machinery cost estimates depend upon the type and set of
machines selected to include in the complement for a particular
farm size. For example, economies of size in average
machinery investment are more evident across the range of farm
sizes for the no-till system. The list price for the 36-foot no-till
air seeder budgeted only for the 2,560-acre farm is 2.6 times as
much as the 20-foot no-till drill budgeted for the 1,280-acre
farm. However, the list price for the 36-foot conventional till
air seeder budgeted only for the 2,560-acre conventional tillage
farm is more than four times as much as the list price for the
20-foot conventional till drill selected for the 1,280-acre
conventional tillage farm. This difference explains much of the
relative difference in size economies across the two production
systems when the farm size increases from 1,280 to 2,560 acres.
Machinery fixed costs (depreciation, insurance, interest on
average investment, and taxes) for both systems across the four
farm sizes are included in Table 4 and graphed in Figure 2. The
estimates are very similar across farm size. They range from
$25 to $35 per acre for the conventional tillage farms and from
$16 to $28 per acre for the no-till farms. For the four farms the
estimated difference in machinery fixed costs between
conventional tillage and no-till range from $6 to $12 per acre.
The chart in Figure 2 illustrates the potential economies of size
in machinery fixed costs per acre especially for the no-till
production systems. Machinery fixed costs per acre is greater
for the 2,560-acre conventional tillage farm than for the 1,280-
acre conventional tillage farm primarily because an air seeder
rather than conventional drill was budgeted for the larger farm.
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As shown in Table 4, wheat seed ($10.50 per acre), fertilizer
($22.55 per acre), insecticide ($3.00 per acre), and custom
harvest and hauling ($20.80 per acre) costs are assumed to be
the same for both systems across all farm sizes. The budgeted
cost of the herbicide program for the no-till system is $11.25
per acre. No herbicide is budgeted for the conventional tillage
Figure 3 includes a chart of total operating costs ($/acre) for
both production systems across the four farm sizes. Operating
costs for the no-till system are $5 to $6 per acre more than for
the conventional tillage system for the two large farms. For
these farms, no-till requires $11.25 per acre more for herbicide
and saves $6 to $7 per acre in machinery fuel, lube, and repairs.
For the two small farms, no-till requires $11.25 per acre more
herbicide and $11 per acre more custom application, but saves
about $7 per acre in fuel, lube, and repairs. Estimated operating
costs for the two small farms are approximately $16 per acre
greater for the no-till system.
Figure 4 includes a chart of total operating plus machinery fixed
costs for both production systems across the four farm sizes.
The estimated total operating and machinery costs are $10 per
acre greater for the 320 and 640-acre no-till farms than for the
corresponding conventional tillage farms. However, estimated
costs are $3 per acre greater for the conventional tillage 1,280
and 2,560-acre farms. These estimates do not include
differences in the opportunity cost of labor across farm sizes
and production systems.
Figure 5 includes a chart of the cost difference between
conventional tillage and no-till for selected items for the four
farm sizes. The chart depicts the estimated cost changes in
herbicide, fuel, lube, and repairs, and custom application (for
the two smaller farms) between conventional tillage and no-till
for the four farm sizes. The chart shows that no-till requires
more herbicide, custom application, and total operating costs.
Conventional tillage requires more fuel, lube, and repairs, and
more machinery fixed costs. The final sets of bars in Figure 5
depict the net result. For the two small farms, estimated total
operating plus machinery fixed costs are slightly greater for the
no-till system. However, for both the 1,280 and 2,560-acre
farms estimated costs are less for the no-till system.
Summary and Conclusions
Less than three percent of the wheat farms in the Prairie
Gateway use no-till to produce wheat. This suggests that no-till
has not been more economical than conventional tillage for
continuous monoculture wheat in the region. Earlier studies
have found that the reduction in tillage costs when switching
from conventional tillage to no-till was insufficient to offset the
increase in herbicide costs. Several changes provided
justification for reevaluating the cost of no-till relative to
conventional tillage for wheat production in the region. The
most important change has been the more than 55 percent
reduction in the price of glyphosate that has occurred since
generic glyphosate became available.
The objectives of this study were to determine the costs of
conventional tillage and no-till for continuous monoculture
wheat production for each of four farm sizes (320, 640, 1,280,
and 2,560-acres). Estimated costs depend upon the assumptions
made regarding machine selection and custom applications.
Estimated operating costs for the two small farms were
approximately $16 per acre greater for the no-till system. The
two small no-till farms require $11.25 per acre more herbicide
and $11 per acre more custom application, but save about $7
per acre in fuel, lube, and repairs and $6 to $7 per acre in
machinery fixed costs. The estimated total operating and
machinery fixed costs are $10 per acre greater for the 320 and
640-acre no-till farms than for the corresponding conventional
For the two large farms, estimated operating costs for the no-till
system are $5 to $6 per acre more than for the conventional
tillage system. For these farms no-till requires $11.25 per acre
more for herbicide and saves $6 to $7 per acre in machinery
fuel, lube, and repairs, and $7 to $12 per acre in machinery
fixed costs. Estimated total operating plus machinery fixed
costs are $3 per acre greater for the conventional tillage 1,280-
acre and 2,560-acre farms.
The reduction in the price of glyphosate has clearly improved
the relative economics of no-till. However, if differences in the
opportunity cost of labor are ignored for both small farms, total
operating plus machinery fixed costs are greater for the no-till
system. For these farm sizes if yields are equivalent
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conventional tillage is more economical. However, for the two
large farm sizes, if yields are equivalent, no-till is more
economical. Given the small difference in costs rapid adoption
of no-till would not be expected. However, the findings suggest
that adoption on large farms is likely to precede adoption on
A major limitation of this study is that yield differences, and
thus, revenue have not been considered. Research is warranted
to determine relative yield differences between no-till and
conventional tillage given the availability of effective no-till
drills and less expensive glyphosate.
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Wheat Farms". United States Department of Agriculture
Statistical Bulletin number 974-5.
American Society of Agricultural Engineers Standards. 2001.
"Agricultural Machinery Management Data." ASAE D497.
Bauer, A. and A.L. Black. 1992. "Effect of Management
Method of Erect Stubble at Spring Planting on Performance of
Spring Wheat." North Dakota State University Agricultural
Experiment Station Research Report No. 524.
Epplin, F.M., G.A. Al-Sakkaf, and T.F. Peeper. 1994. "Impacts
of Alternative Tillage Methods for Continuous Wheat on Grain
Yield and Economics: Implications for Conservation
Compliance." Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 49:394-
Heer, W.F., and E.G. Krenzer, Jr. 1989. "Soil Water
Availability for Spring Growth of Winter Wheat (Triticum
Aestivum L.) as Influenced by Early Growth and Tillage." Soil
and Tillage Research 14:185-196.
Kletke, D., and R. Sestak. 1991. The operation and use of
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of Agricultural Economics Computer Software Series CSS-53.
Oklahoma State Univ., Stillwater, OK.
Oklahoma Agricultural Statistics Service. 2002. 2001 Bulletin.
Available online: http://www.nass.usda.gov/ok/5yr00/
U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2004. "Wheat production
costs and returns, Prairie Gateway." Available online:
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Williams, J.R., R. G. Nelson, T. D. Aller, M. M. Claassen, and
C.W. Rice. 2002 "Derived Carbon Credit Values for Carbon
Sequestration: Do CO2 Emissions from Production Inputs
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