Thursday, November 6, 2014

30 Days: Thoughts of a Future Farmer Day 6

No-Till - Why I Believe

Preface: if you find errors in this, please forgive them, as I'm writing in my iPad on a charter bus somewhere in Illinois. 

I talk to people all the time about how different people farm.  This is highly debated and subject to opinion. We can't all farm exactly the same. The land, capital, equipment, and needs are different everywhere. 

There's a hat on the dashboard of my truck that says "Park the plow, save the soil." I get questions all the time, "How can you never work ground?"  "How do you plant through all that residue?" 

Where I work, if I recall correctly, they began experimenting with no-till back in the 70s, as a way to prevent soil erosion on the rolling hills that make up much of the farm. Again, if I recall right, back in the 80s, they stopped working bottom ground because they said, "If I don't have to work the hills, why do I have to work the bottoms?"  So at that point, the tillage equipment got parked.  We use different parts on the planter's row unit, where it opens and closes the furrow.  It helps make sure that we can get through residue. 

Since this is for conservation efforts, what conservation practices have been put in place otherwise in terms of cropping?  On all acres pre-planting season, we spray a glyphosate "burn-down" that kills the cover crop, then we haul manure.  After manure is hauled, we wait a couple days and plant corn, or drill soybeans.  Where many people grow wheat, we grow rye that is later used as a cover crop.  In growing rye for cover, we harvest it, clean it, and then use it during the fall to drill and hopefully establish a stand that  prevents erosion of the soil during winter months.  In the spring it is sprayed and killed off.  This is a way to keep roots in the soil and to keep the soil from being uncovered. 

How do we keep from having issues with planting corn-on-corn in the stubble from the previous year?  Some of the acres every year will be planted to corn two years in a row, before they are switched to soybeans.  When we drill cover crops, the drill helps break up some of the residue that some claim makes it hard to plant into.  This works as a way to eliminate the necessity of turning the ground over to be able to get seed planted into the residue.  Residue (organic matter) is important in maintaining and increasing soil health.  If you look at the ground on the farm today, compared to some typical assumptions, the hill ground and bottom ground is all producing at a high level, rather than the typical situation where hills produce a little less.  This is due to conservation of the land and the continuation of these practices. 

How do we break up compaction?  Tillage radishes in the cover crop mix is an option.  They put roots deep and break up the soil, but die off long before they could be an issue.  How do we keep from having compaction?  When the ground is wet enough where most people go in and work the top inch or so of the soil, we let the field dry for the day.  If it's fall and corn is ready, or it's spring and it's time to plant, and it's wet, you resist the urge to go "mud 'er in" as many do, and wait.  It takes a different mentality.  We also do not run grain carts.  In my opinion, that's a fast way to increase compaction.  You're running a 50,000 lb combine, plus a tractor that probably weighs another 30,000 and a grain cart holding up to about a thousand bushels (corn alone that equals around another 56,000 lbs) and you have a recipe to compact.  In fact, when ground is wet and you take a big tractor and tillage tool out to mud through and "dry it out" and "cut down on compaction," you're compacting it even more by putting all that weight out there, trying to do the opposite. 

I'm a firm believer, and that's fine.  You and I don't have to agree.  Each operation needs to know what's right for them.  Call me, "One of those hippie no-tillers," that's okay.  I'd like to hear about your soil conservation techniques!

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