I surely wish our agricultural salvation was being assured with what is called no-till farming, like the experts promise. But I’m not yet convinced. For me to doubt the efficacy of modern farming methods right now requires an amazing blindness because around me there arises high into the sky the most magnificent corn crop I have ever seen (where it is not drowned out). If the winds and hail and high water and Japanese beetles spare us, I will not be surprised to see a lot of 250 bushel yields this fall and some 300 bushel yields. My nearby farmer friend nods and drily replies: “Yeah, all we need for a complete collapse of the corn market is one really good year.”
Recently, in the farm news, Dan Davidson, an agronomist who writes for DTN/Progressive Farming online, had a somewhat disturbing column about how no-till farming has not solved the problem of soil compaction. Since I have harangued about this for years, I perked up my eyes and read on. The problem is that although no-till allows the seedbed layer of soil to hold moisture better, thus slowing runoff and keeping the soil loamier than old style plowing, deep compaction continues to be a problem. There seems to be no way to farm with today’s huge equipment without driving on the fields when the soil is too wet, at least occasionally. Using a compaction meter for testing the soil, Mr. Davidson probed down 24 inches at 3 inch intervals on his own farm in Iowa and had this to say: “I came away dismayed to find compaction still exists.” All you need to do here in my part of Ohio is drive down any country road in wet weather and see how the water stands along field edges which get the brunt of heavy machinery traffic. You don’t have to probe. Davidson writes that he thought the solution required breaking up the deep compaction with ripper shovels occasionally, but when he consulted with other soil experts at Iowa State University, the opinion was that “you can temporarily alleviate the compaction this way, but it is a temporary benefit and can set your no-till progress back as the soil has to heal.”
I don’t like being the naysayer on no-till but facts are facts. It isn’t really no-till most of the time anyway. It is the substitution of more sophisticated cultivating tools for the moldboard plow. These new tools work up the soil so marvelously level and firm the seedbed so effectively that nearly every planted kernel comes up. A worked field looks like a work of abstract art. And erosion is, at least on the more level fields, better controlled. But, alas, economics dictates bigger and bigger machines to make it all profitable. The latest versions of webbed, tank-like tracks (like on a Caterpillar) instead of wheels on tractors seem to help but the deep down compaction goes on anyway. In fact, since the webbed tracks allow one to drive on muddy soil without getting stuck so easily, the deep-down compaction actually could get worse.
I would like to say that “no-till” is still better than the old moldboard plow, but even that observation needs qualification. Depends on how you use the moldboard. In the hands of my Amish friends who plow a field only intermittently, that is not every year, in a rotation of corn, oats, and hay, there is little erosion and yields are good to excellent even on hilly soil in a dry year. I know because I’ve walked through their corn fields. But I can think of something better, maybe. If no-till farmers used their cultivation tools the way Amish dairy farmers used theirs, that is, with smaller and therefore lighter versions and long rotations with legumes and cover crops, no-till just might deliver what it promised.