Gene Logsdon and Friends

“No Till” Is A Big White Lie

In Gene's Weekly Posts on June 16, 2010 at 8:35 am

From GENE LOGSDON

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.
~~

  1. Let he who is without sin in the tilling business cast the first stone! We spread barley straw over some disturbed soil near the drainage from our big pond (as required under California’s erosion prevention laws) after we put in a new culvert last fall. Now I look at that barley ripening and plan to harvest the grain–we’ll have to do it by hand as it’s in an area completely inaccessible to any mechanical equipment–and try to think how I could have similarly “free” grain without plowing. Since the oats come up thickly on the spots in the pasture where we feed hay in the winter without plowing or sowing, I wonder if the key is something as simple as spreading a bale or two of straw, heavy with grain, and just letting nature have her way with it? best to use open pollinated grain, of course, but you could save the best seeds from year to year until you had a grain perfectly suited to this sort of ummm–can we call it farming? Maybe run one of your famous hog panel haystack fences around a few spots where the bales are spread to keep the horses and cattle out until the grain is ripe, then move it to another area the next year. I wonder if that would work with corn? What do you think, Gene? It seems like one of your classic “lazy” gardener concepts. Please keep writing, you always spark good ideas, which is why I’ve been reading your books for the last thirty years.

    • Beth, how often I think just like you are thinking. In this area, many wheatfield after harvest grow back up in the wheat that sprouted from grains going out the combine with the straw. Sometimes it becomes something of a second crop, and I think now, if these fields were fenced, tbe volunteer wheat could be pastured. And the straw I use to mulch the strawberries generates many volunteer wheat stalks. They hold the netting I have to use to protect against deer and birds up off the berries. But the fact that these grains grow without any soil tilling is just fantastic. And sure it would work with corn. Around here, volunteer corn coming up in the following crop of soybeans is a problem because the corn often is GMO to resist Roundup and so doesn’t die when the beans are sprayed. Yeah, I think that is sort of funny. Gene

  2. Gasp! A 6-inch gully!

    I don’t have to point out to you of all people, that it would have been a ravine on anyone else’s farm.

    Beth says it all very well; we love the way you think and farm and write and share all that with us. Thanks so much, Gene, for joining in the online community like this and making yourself accessible to all of us long-time readers, fellow rebel farmers, and outright fans.

  3. Maybe it was just too obvious given other things that you’ve written, but I expected this post to go in a slightly different direction, touting the ultimate no-till system: pasture, at least for those animals that evolved for it, instead of raising corn and soy to feed to them. Of course, that’s not where all goes the corn and soy go, but we could sure use a lot less high fructose corn syrup anyway.

    • John, you will not be surprised when I tell you that I actually did have a final paragraph to this blog singing the praises of pasture farming. Took it out because I was getting a little long-winded. Gene

  4. Yes, we are our own worst enemy in many regards. While your results are good by comparison, no harmful effects are not possible when tillage is involved. Minimize and rebuild is the best we can probably do, and that’s what you do. We try to mimic nature in good farming, but tillage has no place in nature so we kind of make it up as we go. Once the wandering hunting life was left for tilling and tending we began to impact the earth as no other creature does or can. We have gone down a road that cannot be turned back from [agriculture], so we better do it well because there is no doing it right.

  5. No-till was originally marketed as a conservation tool, but what it actually did was eliminate the need for labor and time. This in turn enabled the get big or get out crowd, because fewer people and less time were required; large equipment compensated for this, and expensive chemicals and seeds. People realized the more land they covered, the more subsidies they received, deflating the costs. Woods and pastures were torn up, and put to grain farming, because there are no subsidies for woods and pastures. The irony is the modern agribusinessman doesn’t realize he is livestock to the seed, chemical and machinery industries.

  6. “Willingly or unwillingly, humans are destroyers of nature.” I do not disagree, but I would sbumit that “nature” is a destroyer of nature. There is no static perfect balance – it is at all times an ongoing ebb-and-flow war of domination and succession with the sudden fire/wind/water/disease catastrophe thrown in to keep things interesting. I do not know if it is original with him, but I remember Salatin using the line “there is no renewal without disturbance” when describing his use of hogs and wooded land. Humans can be extremely disturbing. I personally have the goal of becoming a wiser and wiser disturber, not a no-disturber. Which is why I enjoy your writing since you are one of the wisest agitator/disturbers I know.

  7. Yes, Russ, I think you are as correct as any of us can be trying to explain what we mean by “nature”. Are you ever tempted, as I am, to conclude that all the world is one big giant mess of chaos. Even the word, “nature” might be just that, a word, a word we try to use to designate some kind of order in the universe. I have come to a compromise. There are “little” examples of order in the universe, encased within a giant chaos. Gene
    Roof: Even though we have met and talked before, I never realized just how knowledgeable about what is really going on in farming. Bless your courage. Gene

  8. Tempted? Definitely. But to paraphrase a writer of religous bent, I tend to be always perplexed but seldom given over to despair. I see a world infatuated with the words “I can” when it would be better served by the question “should I?”. I can’t prove it, but I find it more reasonable to believe in an underlying structure that is often hidden by the shadows of the present. That’s my compromise.

    You usually make me laugh, but even better, you always make me think.

  9. We still practice real no-till down here in Pleasant Valley, home of the most outspoken proponent of soil conservation and no-till farming – Louis Bromfield.

    Of course it’s true, we use GMO’s (roundup ready) with Roundup… which bothers some people, but with the rolling hills of the valley’s around here the soil erosion from plowing was devastating the soil of the region.

  10. I’ve always loved the look of a freshly plowed field. The looks of a field laid waste by round-up is disgusting. If plowing is done correctly, taking the lay of the land into account, I doubt it is much worse than a Round-up desert as far as erosion goes. Where I grew up in the hills of NW Pa, erosion was always a problem but in the ‘old’ days they used winter covers of rye, diversion ditches, and contour plowing to slow the process. Fall plowing was seldom done since winter came fast and hard here.
    The no-till movement had to have been fostered by the chemical industry in my opinion. It was another way to market Round-up to a wider group of farmers. What do you need this for on the plains of the Midwest? Your land is already better than anything here and your erosion has got to be much less. Fields here that farmers have used Round-up on show more erosion that any others.
    Thank you for presenting a common-sense look at no-till. The old ways are not always better, but in this case we need to look back to get a better grip on soil management. Keep up the great writing Gene!

  11. I have heard a USDA agent comment, that every trip through the field reduces the carbon content of the soil.

    I imagine that “no till” meant tilling, any working of the soil to produce a loose, light, fertile “tilth” aspect of the seed bed, to nurture a crop once planted. Whether disking or plowing or other field operation intended to disrupt weeds or loosen soil, these are all “till” operations.

    When lambasting the chemical pesticide (such as Round Up) industries, don’t forget – industrial farming doesn’t often make use of organic material for soil fertility. Where “10 Acres Enough” begins with “No man needs to till more ground than he can adequately manure”, No Till farming depends heavily on artificial (i.e., energy-intense to make, transport, and apply) fertilizers.

    I understand that there is a growing trend to quarantine freighters and tankers in the Gulf of Mexico – ships that have sailed into the oil spill might contaminate other waters, if allowed to leave. This does *not* bode well for the Gulf-based petroleum industry – and will be reflected in rising fuel costs quite soon. Rising fuel costs directly affect farm profits as they increase the cost to plant, till, harvest, and transport crops. Rising fuel crops impact the cost to dry harvested crops to safe moisture levels for storage – and costs of fertilizers.

    Some crops missed being planted this spring due to changes in rain patterns – fuel prices may prevent industrial farming plantings this fall and next spring, as rising fuel costs make the endeavor a losing financial proposition. Market prices for crops have been somewhat volatile – but not enough to overcome the massive increases in seed corn (i.e., patented GMO seed corn, thanks, Monsanto) and other costs.

    Finding open-pollinated seed may be difficult. The current grain markets have been well and truly bent, in order to effect the strangle-hold patented seed sellers want. If you have some, be prepared to defend, in the lab and in court, that your seed doesn’t contain any patented DNA from any source, because you are the one responsible for proving your own crops are “clean” of patent infringement is the current law. And, yes, patented seed companies have been caught tossing their patented seed into a non-customer field, purely to establish the presence of their patented DNA in the harvest. And courts have upheld the claims of the patent-holder, not the victimized non-customer.

    Anyway, rising fuel costs may put an end to much of the myth of No Till farming. The problem is, there is so much of the equipment suitable for a 10 acre to 160 acre farm still existing. China is buying our scrap metal again, and a lot of salvageable and repairable small farming equipment is disappearing.

  12. We raise organic corn, soybeans and barley, we often hear comments about how our growing crops aren’t clean like the neighbors, we cultivate but that only works half decent based on weather. Now with the organic market collapse and the high cost of certification we are considering dropping the “official” organic and shifting more to raising cattle (buying bull calves and raising them on our remaining cows. We’d love to ship milk again but dairy consolidation is the order of the day and Organic Valley isn’t picking up additional milk supplies (also Organic Valley acts more like DFA everyday).

    Gene, it seems like small family farms are under attack across the midwest (witness the war on raw milk), I’m tired of being marginalized and am ready to start fighting back as a pirate farmer, what hope is there for us anymore?

  13. Why can’t perennials be used instead of annuals? For example, chestnut can be used for flour production (http://www.badgersett.com/info/woodyag3.html#chestnut) among other things. If perennials are used – then the annual tillage is removed from the equation and the farmer can focus more energy on building the soil. As an added bonus – the mycorrhizae in the soil have an opportunity to grow with the perennials.

  14. My wife and I traveled to Southeast Iowa a few years back during all the flooding. They claimed it was a 500 year flood, I asked which tribe kept weather records to confirm this. What we witnessed was severe erosion on bare fields, along with trenches cut in the bare soil edges of grassed waterways. It appeared that over the years soil had built up on the edge forming a slight berm. No-till fields had no soil erosion, however the cornstalks had washed off and were choking the rivers and streams. Does the organic matter in the form of cornstalks count as erosion? The few farms with animal agriculture that pastured steep slopes and practiced crop rotation, had little or no erosion. The old ways of soil conservation haven’t changed over the eons. Our fathers and grandfathers knew what it took to survive without government oversight, they had to.

  15. Amos, I don’t see too much in the near future to hope for in decentralized farming or any other business. To survive in decentralized writing, which is how I eke out a living, requires my wife and I to live modestly in regard to money. Strangely that has not been a sacrifice but a blessing, allowing us in the last 35 years to enjoy living the way we like to live. We watch our friends spend five to ten times the amount of money we spend, but I don’t see that they are any happier that we are. When one is young, the adage of “save your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves” seems far fetched and a long way off, but it is true.
    Paul, I have seen cornstalks wash off steep “no till” fields and knock a woven wire fence flat to the ground at the bottom of a hill in Knox County, Ohio, once called “the no-till capitol of the world.” There was a lot of dirt mixed in with the cornstalks too. Needless to say, more sense has come to Knox County lately. Gene

  16. Gene,
    Do you still own a plow? I saw a photo of one in one of your books. I have a McCormick Deering Little Wonder I am trying to get working.
    Thanks
    Mike Townsley

  17. Mike Townsley, yes I still have a two bottom, Co-op, pull behind plow of unknown age and origin. It has to be 80 years old. Still use it, put a new tire on it last spring. The one you saw in the photo is the same one. Gene

  18. I wonder if my little wonder plow is missing a piece on the tongue as I look at your plows photo? Thanks
    Mike

  19. Gene,
    i read lots of your blogs and i have really enjoyed them. I understand your critiques of no till seems to be of the large scale halfway methods. I only write because I want to make sure that you are condemning the way no till is carried out rather than the concept itself. I had the chance to work with a major university in Florida who has led the way in a lot of the no-till/ strip- till/ conservation till practices int he last 20 years or more. I am no longer affiliated with the school and i don’t use the name because i am not familiar of whether i am able to make these statements legally without their consent ( not a lawyer obviously), but I think it would be easy to guess the school. Back to the point, some of the fields we used had been under conservation tillage practices for over 20 years and our research was conducted only to find out better ways to help farmers implement this practice and make it productive. Most of the experiments were on big money crops like peanuts and I’m sure the peanut companies influenced what we researched, but they didn’t have any influence on the results. I say all this to give you an idea of where I am coming from. I have seen conservation tillage practices work on a moderate scale in a controlled environment in Florida soil. We have a lot different soil in Florida than what you describe of Ohio and the midwest. Perhaps this is a factor. Also, none of the fields we worked were tilled at all other than the strip made by the planter. I notice in your past writing of farms claiming to practice no-till but ploughing after harvest. This wasn’t the case at the University. Some fields were killed by herbicides and some by a chopper/roller or a combination of the two and then planted in the residue. Im just trying to get more in depth about what you see wrong with the no till practice and see if there is an a side of this I don’t understand yet. I also read your recent post about the drainage issues that may be attributed to no till and once again that isn’t something that has been a problem in the sandy soils of Florida. Could you write a post or maybe just email me on what your thoughts are about conservation tillage as a practice and application?

    David

  20. David, I am all in favor of the original intent of conservation tillage. Some of it is certainly good practice but when it is used to merely make a rotation of corn and soybeans more economical on a very large scale (if indeed that is possible) it becomes destructive. What I think that I have learned in 80 years is that disturbing the soil mechanically is always going to have its dark side but if you don’t disturb the soil we would be better off in a hunting and gathering civilization. Remember Plowman’s Folly way way back in 1943. Many of us jumped on that anti-tillage wagon too with good reason, only to learn that replacements for the moldboard plow all had their drawbacks too and that loosening the soil with a moldboard plow every few years was a pretty good idea. Now we have another cycle of fancy “minimum till” machines and we are learning they also have their drawbacks especially when they are pulled by tractors that are way too heavy for any soil except maybe your sand. Could it be that without tillage we will all starve but with tillage we grow fat and civilization collapses? It always has. Gene Logsdon

Comments are closed.