Gene Logsdon and Friends

Still Negative About No-Till

In Gene Logsdon Blog on July 31, 2013 at 8:42 am

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From GENE LOGSDON

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.
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  1. what about adding into the mix of no-till: cover cropping. Here in Ohio a good mix of taproot radish, hulled oats, lacy phacillia and buck wheat will help suppress weeds, add good green manure as well as breaking up the hard-pan – sometimes going down 3′ deep. All are winter killed so ready for planting in the Spring.

  2. But Gene, isn’t that exactly the point. Good farming practice makes no-till work. Bad farming practice makes it fail. By saying no to no-till are you saying yea to bad practice? Just asking.

    • kcg, building on your comment, could I be justified in saying that good farming practices make farming work in spite of no-till ? Gene

  3. As an occasional, part-time, small plot gardener I really haven’t sufficient expertise or experience to have any opinion about this one way or another. But I would be really really curious to see how the biological output of a fully-grown, animal integrated food forest compares to both till and no-till.

  4. GPS allows farmers to drive their machinery in different tracks than the previous times, but this only affects superficial soil compaction; deep soil compaction would be impacted just the same.

    The only ray of hope I see is light robots to do the planting and harvesting, and lots of them, to compensate for the smaller size and productivity. We are still a few decades from this new generation, but I hope weeding robots will come earlier. Then even organic farmers could use them.

    • The problem I see with increasing mechanization is the same problem the green revolution created in the late 50′s. As you make it possible for one person to own and farm larger and larger areas of land with less and less human labor, we end up with the displaced population in the cities in low wage jobs. Because human nature and politics is what it is, we do not make food cheaper so that these people can afford better lives, we make sure the additional margins go into the pockets of large land owners and greedy middlemen. What we need is technology targeted at making it easier for individuals to farm a reasonable amount of land with a good income that pays them for their labor. When we make it possible for more land to be farmed with less labor, the greedy will just push it to the limit again and continue to destroy our resources.

  5. Gene, I think you’re right. As I’ve been researching cover crops and attending meetings since we planted our first cover last fall I keep hearing that no till is doing mostly nothing to alleviate compaction. I’m starting to think of cover crops as my tillage tools. I’ve even seen claims that radishes and a ripper are better than either alone. Of course every filed is different. I for one am looking forward to this fall and planting twice the cover we did last year.

  6. I’ve always wondered whether the success of intensive raised bed gardening with a heavy mulch in so many areas is because you don’t walk on the soil. I know John Jeavons says you have to double dig for the full effect, but as long as I stay off the beds and periodically plant a deep-rooted cover crop, I don’t think digging is necessary (of course, since I am at heart a lazy soul, it would take a heck of a lot to get me to double dig no matter how productive it made the garden…)

  7. Ever heard of a “keyline” or “yeomans” plough? It’s like a ripper and a drill, used by Permaculturalists to deeply aerate and plant deep-rooted cover crops simultaneously.

    Also worth looking at are the techniques of Alan Savoy, who is using fast rotational grazing to reverse compaction.

  8. maybe the continued compaction is due to the continued presence of heavy machinery?

    p.s. to carrmine, me too.

  9. No till isn’t going to solve the lack of organic matter in the soil,as its almost impossible to pack soil tight that has lots of organic matter in it.So crop rotation helps greatly and planting a row crop 1 year out of 3 only.Also in my area with Red Clay nothing beats a chisel plow to open up the ground down deep to loosen the soil and let in air and water.Plus No Till relies on chemicals to kill the weeds which is a big negative in my opinion.

  10. Problems seen here with no till are that the soil is slow to warm in spring due to trash cover. There fore germination of seeds is delayed. Also plant diseases are increasing due to the heavy layer of trash covering the soil. Fall chisel plowing is coming back in favour here even with no tillers.

  11. “But, alas, economics dictates bigger and bigger machines to make it all profitable.”

    Thanks for that comment Gene. I’ve talked to quite a few people who assured me that farming was in no way a means to make money. There is hope!

    I think no-till is the future of farming. In fact it’s already here. Currently being practiced by Ohio’s own Dave Brandt and taught by NRCS agents Jay Fuhrer and Ray Archuleta. If you don’t know who those people are, start a Googlin’.

    I’ve heard on average pre industrial soil organic matter numbers for Ohio range in the 15-18% range. Today it’s around 2-3%. Until we understand the importance that microbial biomass counts have on soil structure, I doubt we’ll remember that rebuilding agricultural soils must be done from the top down.

    When we drive “bigger and bigger machines” on our soils, without the correct amount of microbial biomass, compaction will occur. That does not take a scientist to conclude. So how much organic matter do we need to house the microbes so we can drive our giant machines? That’s the question for the scientists. I’ll guess that it’s more than 2-3%.

    The grasslands of Northern America are well documented to have had more living biomass below ground than above. That means there were more microbes by weight undergound than the giant herds of buffalo that roamed above. Those soils had 20+% organic matter.

    Like many of the other posters here, I concur that there is no silver bullet. Keyline, HM, Permaculture, and Soil Biology will all have to be balanced with nature in order to create soil genesis.

    I’m not so sure that the future will support such large machines destroying what little soil we have left. I imagine for every new giant John Deere combine, there could be 5 or 10 small refurbished Gleaner F2′s spread over the landscape. Weight evenly distributed. Or perhaps in the future people will keep chickens and pigs like yesteryear, and our reliance on feed grain will decrease? Humm…

  12. The politicians that have put the motivations in place to plant all this corn and soy evidently never heard of the Irish potato famine.

  13. The compaction problem will never entirely be solved.Some of the worst compacted areas I have ever seen were in pastures where cattle walked in wet weather.The only system I have ever seen that helped was using controlled traffic on the same track over the field year in and year out.I tried ridge till many years ago on untiled land and that worked but limited me to row crops.If GPS lets farmers use the same paths over and over some progress may be made.All the compaction will be in a few lanes freeing the rest of the field.

    • Rob, yes indeed. Good response. I’ve been wondering what happens to tile if farmers use the same paths over them over and over again. Can tile systems be designed so those paths don;t go over them? Gene

  14. No till is still sort of in its early stages of adoption around us here, and with it comes a new pest that we’ve never really had to worry about before: wheat stem sawfly. He has long been a problem in the North, and there’s research being done on breeding varieties that have a natural resistence to sawfly, but many breeders seem to think the answer is going to have to be Bt or something like it (which I think is a pretty temporary solution, as we’re seeing with a lot of these other fixes). I’m not saying that no-till is bad just because of this, but it reinforces the need for cover crops and long rotation in my opinion, since the sawfly burrows down into the stem base of the wheat plant to over winter, and if that stubble isn’t pretty well broken down by spring, it will still be there.

  15. I understand the quandary. I’m hopeful of planting grain into fertile pasture fertilized with clover and manure and urine from grazing animals in order to minimize soil disturbance and control erosion. Yet I still went out to a patch of pasture where I intend to plant grain followed by next years garden. I fed the critters with grass clipping hay on the ground and left the residue as fertilizer. Yet compaction was such that I’m still cranking up the rotary tiller to make a good seed bed. I’d like to think the compaction wouldn’t affect the grain growth, but based upon previous attempts it seems if the soil is compacted, crops like grain and vegetables don’t grow well. However weeds such as common mallow proliferate and essentially suffocate the grain and vegetables.

    Helen Atthowe, a former horticulturist in Montana has in the past been able to make work a process where she tilled strips for vegetables into essentially a grass-legume pasture, but, although the grass and legume helped tremendously with fertility she still ended up tilling the vegetable strips. Maybe if enough folks were committed to the processes involved a truly sustainable agriculture without tillage or chemicals could emerge. It seems however that the directive in Genesis to “work the soil” is still applicable.

    Masanobu Fukuoka described his processes for using clover and straw and poultry manure to grow grain without tillage some years ago in his book :”The One Straw Revolution”, and, except for possibly permaculturists, his processes are still viable but not widely adopted, at least in the USA,. Instead we have double digging advocated by John Jeavons and square foot gardening that doesn’t even rely on local soil advocated by Mel Bartholomew. But I still question :” are these methods truly sustainable?” That isn’t to disparage either of these fine gentlemen, but I think we need to keep asking ourselves this question, : “Is what I’m doing or intending to do agriculturally , truly sustainable?”

  16. Although I would rather see no-till drilled beans than row beans and erosion on gently rolling land, I know first hand some pitfalls of no-till. Purdue U. had a study out many years ago showing that continual no-till causes soil nutrient and PH stratification through the plow layer.
    The recommendation then was to subsoil and at least chisel plow every 10 years.
    I would doubt most land owners would be willing to help pay for the diesel fuel intensive use of sub soiling to break up the hardpan; not to mention waiting later in the year when the ground is dry to do it.
    Maybe those groundhog radishes for no-till are the solution of the future…

    Ken

  17. Bill Dietrich of DMI was dead on with his subsoiler. I give him as much credit as anyone for identifying compaction and the need for deep tillage. When others said less tillage, he said more. He was right and no till is as much junk science as global warming.

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