Minnesota Farmer

Recreational tillage

In my opinion some farmers spend too much time working their soil, and it shows.

With this early harvest and dry weather I’ve been seeing many of my neighbors out doing extra tillage.  My word to them is DON”T DO IT.  Autumn in Minnesota can be chancy,we can get late harvests with minimal time to till the ground after harvest, and we can have plenty of extra days like this year.  When there is extra time some farm folks seem to think they need to work their fields again, and again, and again.  Over working is not good for your soil, even when it is dry.

The hard chunks in the field will go away.  All we need is some rain and the normal freeze thaw cycle we get so much of here.  Why spend the extra time, fuel and machinery wear when you can let nature do the work for you.  Every trip across the field buries and breaks up more of the plant material that is left on the surface.  Plant material that is needed to protect our soil from wind and rain.  Plant material that both helps to hold moisture in the ground during dry years and aids in water infiltration in wet years.

A moldboard plow turns over soil and covers most of the plant material.

Although I have not abandoned tillage completely, I have cut back on how much tillage I do compared to what I used to do.  Tillage is cut back to the minimum needed to get fertilizer and manure into the soil in the fall, and the seed bed smoothed out in the spring.  Costs in machinery and fuel use have been reduced to minimal levels needed to grow the crop and keep the weeds down.  The payoff has been in better soil condition and less erosion.  Crop yields have not suffered, weed control is easier, it’s a win, win condition.

A deep tillage disk cuts deep, but does not cover all of the plant material.

A few years ago I talked to a neighbor who installs field drainage.  He commented that he could see we had switched to less tillage.  He could see by the way our ground looked down below the normal tillage area that our soil was doing better.  There was less compaction and more and deeper root growth than in fields that were still being tilled “conventionally.”  In other words, our soil was healthier.

Even back in the 70’s when I was in college, we were talking about the need for less tillage to reduce erosion and improve soil health.  The problem is that it is hard to change your ways when what you are doing seems to be working.  Those that switch to the lower impact methods rarely switch back if they give it a real try.  It can take many years to see the impact of less tillage.  This is not a change your tillage today and see the results tomorrow kind of thing.

When you reduce tillage it is not unusual to see the remains of multiple years of crops still on the soil surface.

It has taken me a while to get to where I am today, but I would not go back.  The reduction in wear and tear on the machinery, the reduction of fuel needs and the better soil health have made me a believer.  No more recreational tillage for me.



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