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It might be ugly, but no-till works

Posted Tuesday, June 5, 2012, at 6:05 PM

It's often called "farming ugly."

That is an appropriate name. But officially farmers call it "no-till." I first learned about this farming method typing my future husband's college papers. At that time it was more of an academic idea, very cutting edge. Soil erosion was a hot-button issue in rural America and no-till was seen as the way to alleviate that problem. After all, no-till meant not working the soil at all, planting directly into the prior year's corn stalks or bean stubble.

It was a far-cry from conventional till, practiced since pioneers starting tearing up the fertile prairie with horse-drawn plows. Through the years farmers have worked the soil several times before planting. Then they worked the soil between growing plants several times by "cultivating" corn and soybeans. In hilly areas, it can add up huge losses of precious topsoil.

Of course at that time, I had no idea what he was writing about. No clue.

But recently, as I found myself fielding questions, I realized I finally understand what I typed so many years ago.

This year several people have asked about "all those dead fields" of cornstalks dotting the country landscape this spring.

"Why aren't they working the ground?" and "Have they stopped planting?" are among the questions.

This year, in a unscientific windshield study conducted by driving around the countryside, it appears more soybeans were no-tilled in the area than ever before. Farmers have "drilled" or planted soybeans directly into corn stalks relatively untouched since last fall's harvest.

So instead of freshly-tilled brown dirt with straight rows, clearly defining just where a planter has been, we are left with dead and dying weeds, in a field of decomposing corn stalks. It's hard to tell if the fields have been planted, at least until the soybeans start to pop above the ground.

It is most definitely ugly, at least driving by.

Welcome to no-till, 2012.

Although no-till has been popular in some areas and with some farmers for several years, this year seemed to be a break-out year in our area.

So why all the no-till this year?

There are several reasons, but the biggest one has to do with our abnormally dry spring. Cultivating (tilling) helps a field dry when it is still slightly wet, so the last several years of wet springs weren't conducive to no-till. Many farmers didn't want to wait until the ground was dry enough and warm enough.

This year, however, with little rain and warm weather, no-tilling preserved what soil moisture there was, making it the thing to do.

Studies have shown no-tilling soybeans does not result in a yield loss. Especially this year, where worked fields became too dry and the lack of moisture has made getting soybeans to sprout difficult.

Despite the ugly look, it preserves precious soil on erodible ground, building up organic matter and tilth. With the advent of Round-Up Ready seeds, it is no longer necessary to use as many chemicals or passes across the field to control weeds. Add in the fact most planters are now equipped to use no-till and it all makes sense.

It's a win-win.

Except for that whole ugly thing.

Oh well, in a few weeks with a little rain and a little luck, all we will be able to see are pretty green fields of blooming soybeans.

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I'll overlook a whole lot of ugly for a little rain about now.

Nice article.

-- Posted by Bob Kennedy on Sat, Jun 9, 2012, at 6:56 PM

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