Soil tillage is the single most preventable cause of soil erosion, nutrient loss, land degradation, and reduced water quality. Properly timed reduced tillage goes a long way toward improving these issues.
Today’s intensive farming methods of growing only two crops, and in many cases only corn, exposes the soil to a greater risk than when pastures and small grain were present on much of the landscape. Tillage exposes the soil to losses from water and wind. Also, the actual costs of machinery, labor, and soil loss are quite often underestimated when deciding whether or not to till the soil.
Prior to the development of herbicides in the 1960’s, tillage was the only thing a producer could do to reduce competition from weeds. Although there are some issues from the use of chemicals on the land, herbicides, when used responsibly are much less harmful to the environment than excessive soil loss and the accompanying removal of nutrients. The practice of no-till, where the crop is planted into the undisturbed residue of last year’s crop, expands each year and is proven to be a viable alternative. For many producers, the move to no-till can be daunting but actually requires minimal equipment adjustment and a change of thinking. Many producers are now planting soybeans into corn stubble with a no-till drill and finding that it is much easier and more profitable than multiple tillage passes. No-till planting corn into soybean stubble requires even less equipment. Producers who have used no-till for several years agree that the practice results in positive changes in soil texture, water holding capacity, and the soil’s ability to digest crop residues.
The easiest, single best action that producers can take to reduce soil loss is to stop all fall tillage, especially on soybean stubble. The potential for erosion is reduced when the soil is not disturbed. Research has proven that fall tillage is unnecessary, expensive, and destructive to the soil and the environment. As more off-farm landowners realize there are viable alternatives to fall tillage, more rental agreements will restrict this practice.
The realization that everyone pays a price for compromised water and soils has placed increased scrutiny on production agriculture. Producers need to improve practices to control soil loss for their own long-term success and for the health of the communities in which they farm.
For more information on available help, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District.