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"No till" is a big white lie

This will sound like criticism of industrial grain and soybean farmers but if you read to the end, it is really commiseration. “No till,” for those of you who are not up to the minute on farming, is a popular term coined by farm technologists to refer to planting crops without working up a loose, fine seedbed beforehand. The original idea was to plant seeds using a special “no-till” planter, in undisturbed sod killed with a herbicide, or into last year’s undisturbed plant residue, particularly cornstalks, thereby reducing erosion. It took lots of herbicides to make it work but that’s another story.

There are still some fields planted this way and they do decrease erosion. But most of the time, “no till” is a big fat fib. What it really means is “no moldboard plow” and because of that we are supposed to believe that farmers are controlling soil erosion. Instead of the plow, farmers work up the soil with a variety of disks, chisel plows, field cultivators and turbo tillage tools. When I point out that they are tilling the soil as much as they ever did, in fact more in some cases, with just about as much subsequent soil erosion, they look at me blandly, like I am speaking a foreign language. They don’t want to hear that. They are determined to believe, along with their university and USDA partners, that they are controlling erosion simply because they quit using moldboard plows and use no-till planters.

The pretension reaches hilariously ludicrous proportions. For instance, in “Farm and Dairy” magazine in the latest issue, there is an article titled: “No-till All the Way.” Immediately above it is a photo of the farm where no-till is being practiced “all the way.” In the photo, behind the farmstead buildings, stretch acres and acres of soil as tilled and bare as a desert. In the body of the article, the text goes on for two columns singing the praises of “no-till” farming until it finally gets down to the truth of the matter and points out that, oh by the way, the farm uses a Case Turbo 330 tillage tool to cultivate rather than a moldboard plow.

In truth, these alternatives to the plow sometimes do control erosion a little better, but not much. What is going on here is definitely not “no till.” It could just as well be called “more till.” Farmers are even returning to fall tillage and in the spring may go over the soil being prepared for corn with two or more cultivations before planting. But as long as they don’t use a moldboard plow they can call it “no-till.”

All you have to do is drive through the cornbelt this time of year to see thousands upon thousands of acres of unprotected soil planted to corn that is eroding badly in this year’s torrential rains. Even where soybeans have been planted into corn stalk residue, the residue has been chopped up and pulverized with cultivation ahead of planting and erosion occurs there too, but not as bad. Where true no-till is being practiced, that is where the soybeans are planted directly into heavy, undisturbed corn stubble, better erosion control is achieved, but there is a problem. These stalks, mostly from new genetically engineered varieties, are thick and stout and resistant to rotting. So although they help control erosion if left undisturbed, they are too much of a good thing in this regard. They gum up the planter and hold moisture so well that in this wet weather some such fields have not yet been planted (as of June 10). They won’t dry out enough before the next rain.

But when I grumble, I must first look in the mirror. I grow hardly a half acre of corn in narrow strips, with clover between the strips, on land that is almost level. I plow down (mea culpa) a thick growth of clover for green manure and then rotary-till to mix all that organic matter and plant residue in the top four inches of soil. I piously think of myself as being without sin in the erosion department. Guess what. On one of my corn strips, only 12 feet wide and about 400 feet long, there is, half way down one strip, a six inch gully created by a rain so heavy it melted a salt block in the pasture nearby.

Sometimes I think there is no escape from our fate. Willingly or unwillingly, humans are destroyers of nature. As long as we disturb soil on any kind of scale beyond the backyard garden, no matter how good our intentions, we will follow the path of all lost civilizations. Our fields will turn to deserts, our seas to zones of death.

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