The World's First Environmentalists
Part I: Conservation Tillage
Traditionally, farmers have relied on tilling—a method of agitating soil using plows—to aerate the soil, allowing it to catch and keep rainfall better; to clean the soil of weeds; to make the soil more fertile by bringing nutrients to the top; and generally prepare the soil for seeding. Today, many farmers across the United States have turned to conservation tillage, a series of methods that minimize soil disturbance in order to reduce soil erosion.
Without plowing, a layer of crop residue remains on the soil's surface, protecting the soil, and the crop is planted into this soil. Compared to regular tillage, soil erosion can be reduced by 90% in a given year. No-till and vertical tillage don't work on all types of soil and thus cannot be used on all farmland, but as the farmers below demonstrate, when these methods do work they can be incredibly effective and rewarding.
In the mid 1980s, Lori Feltis, a corn and soybean farmer from Minnesota, needed to update her tillage equipment and decided to try no-till for two years to see how it worked. Twenty years later, she uses no-till on 100 percent of her 1,200-acre farming operation and is convinced that it makes all the difference in its success.
Feltis, who lives in an area where the sandy soil dries out and erodes especially quickly, reports that using no-till has been "a win-win situation." In addition to reducing soil erosion in a vulnerable area, her crops are better because of the increased moisture in the soil, she has improved weed control and cut herbicide use, and she has reduced her use of fuel by 50 percent due to less tractor activity.
No-till farming has been around since the late 1960s, but it hasn't always been popular. In fact, it used to be referred to as "trash farming" because of the unsightly layer of waste left on top of the soil after the harvest season ended. From fall harvest to spring planting, soil is left untouched, and seeds are planted into narrow slots that are drilled into the ground with special equipment.
For Feltis, using no-till has proved to be an exercise in patience. When planting time arrives each spring, she needs to wait for the soil to warm up, which can be difficult when she can see her neighbors starting to plant. But for her, the decision to stick with no-till has been an easy one. "We've seen no drag in yield [and] we've saved so much money in the long run…it has been wonderful."
Minnesota corn and soybean farmer Dan Tipke grew up relying on heavy tillage to loosen soil, increase fertility, and destroy weeds, often ripping 12 to 15 inches deep into the soil. Four years ago, he decided to try vertical tillage, a newer method of conservation tillage. He was pleased to discover that his yields are excellent, and he plans on continually increasing his use of vertical tillage on his 1,300-acre farm.
In vertical tillage, producers use a range of tools to fluff crop residue and perform shallow soil tillage, which helps get oxygen and water into the soil and speeds breakdown of the residue.
Tipke's experience with traditional tilling has given him insight into just how effective vertical tillage can be in preventing soil erosion. "We've seen the effects [of traditional tilling] when it rains and the water runs black with topsoil…[with vertical tillage], it is just amazing how there is next to no erosion."
Vertical tillage has proved to be ideal method for Tipke, as he limits his risk of lower crop yields while still preventing erosion by only tilling the top few inches of soil.
Now entering his fifth season using vertical tillage, Tipke's thoughts on farmers and environmentally friendly methods echo our own. "Vertical tillage isn't for everyone," he says, "but we're doing everything we can to prevent erosion."
Photos courtesy of USDA NRCS