Casaubon's Book

“No Till” is a confusing term. For most people who know nothing about agriculture, the word “till” isn’t particularly revealing – it sounds like there’s no cash register. Given that level of knowledge, when you are reassured that no tillage means less erosion, you aren’t going to crticize. Those with home gardens often know something about a different kind of “no till” than “no till agriculture” – they may envision gardens with permanent mulch in formal beds, and assume that field-scale no-till looks something like that.

I’m pleased that Gene Logsdon then points out what I’ve also observed myself - that there’s a considerable amount of tillage going on in fields practicing no-till agriculture, besides the repeated drenching of soil in round up.

But I also eat grain. So like Logsdon, I’m not innocent. Wanting to preserve topsoil is legitimate, but just as we haven’t found the solutions to our energy problems by small, incremental changes, we also haven’t found the solution to our erosion problems that way. It is worth a read, and one that I think can give people who only vaguely know where the driving calories of their food come from a little better sense of the truth.

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Ewan R
    June 21, 2010

    Hmm – I drive past a couple of no-till fields on the way to work – can’t speak directly as to how much goes on to the fields but to me they really do look as if they receive zero tillage – the corn residue left in the field is quite literally corn residue left in the field – acres of rows of about 6″ or so of totally dessicated corn stalk sticking up with a handful of weeds – at least that’s how they looked a couple of months ago, now all there is in the field is either soy, or corn – pretty much exactly as described in the final paragraph – not sure as to how badly they’ve held moisture – gonna guess not too badly, we had helluva rain between about V2 and V4 to such an extent that a couple of fields I drive by have 6ft high corn plants in the good spots, and 1ft high corn weeds in the low spots – the soy in the no-till field across the road doesn’t really look to have suffered, although I guess it may have been a pain in the behind to put in.

    Would be interesting to see how widespread the various practices are – I’ve seen a bunch of literature citations on no-till being practiced with RR crops suggesting quite impressive amounts of topsoil being saved, which I believe is probably worth even a little gumming up of planters and moisture retention (just need to get Pam Ronald’s sub1 gene into soy and corn so submersion doesn’t kill them – although how much no-till would be viable if your removed RR from the scheme (as you’d have to do if being opposed to any and all oil dependant inputs) remains another interesting question)

  2. I attended the field day at Rodale’s Experimental Farm last year, where they pursue “no-till” organic farming. Even they admitted that they find they have to resort to tilling about once every 4-5 years, because the weed pressure in organic fields reaches a critical state at about that interval. Tilling sort of hits the reset button for certain tenacious weeds.

    I wish we’d hear more about that Argentine rotation between pasture for cattle and then a few years of cropping grains. How do they handle the conversion of those fields from one paradigm to another? I’ve never heard many details on their system.

  3. #3 Dunc
    June 22, 2010

    Well, that’s disappointing… I’ve been hearing all these great things about how much US corn growing is “no-till”… Guess I should engage my cynicism more.

    I have heard of corn being direct-drilled into a permanent clover undersward… I’m pretty sure some at least some research has been done on it here in the UK. Anybody know anything?

    Finding a solution to the problems of field-scale grain production is probably the biggest challenge. Sure, you can (theoretically) change your diet to eliminate it, but a world without malting barley is not one I’d chose to live in…

  4. #4 Don
    June 22, 2010

    When I read Gene’s column late last week, I thought to myself that I wouldn’t recognize a moldboard plow if someone placed one in my front yard. I realized that I don’t really know all that much about what conventional farmers do.

    On Saturday morning my wife and I were driving through the flat fields of northwestern Ohio (on our way to our college class reunion) and we passed some soybean fields that had last year’s corn stubble still in place–just like Ewan reported. It really looks like a good idea for retaining topsoil until one reads what Gene had to say about it.

    On a related topic, I heard this (unsurprising) news from the local NPR station yesterday morning:
    http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/wosu/news.newsmain/article/1/0/1665424/WOSU.News/Roundup.Resistant.Weeds.Pose.Environmental.Threat..

  5. #5 Mike
    June 22, 2010

    I think this is yet another case of food science denialists (organic pushers) trying to vilify a conventional practice that is difficult for organic producers to use. I work with the Chesapeake Bay Program. The amount of nutrients that can be saved from the use of no till in conjunction with cover crops is tremendous.

    here is one link:
    http://www.chesapeakebay.net/news_notillfarming.aspx?menuitem=20259

    Obviously no till has more effect on terrain that is more likely to be eroded where the land is more hilly. In the midwest where the land is so flat, such is errosion is less likely.

    I also have friends in the midwest who raise organic soybeans and wheat. To keep the weeds out, they till at least twice before planting and then cultivate up to 4 times. The land is pretty flat though.

    Now why did I bring into my comment that food science denialism aspect, look at Sharon’s wording: “repeated drenching of soil in round up. ”

    Just what is a drenching? I have attached a link to an Extension publication examining how much Roundup to spray per acre. The highest rate is 60 ounces per acre. that comes to 0.0014 ounces per square foot. I suppose only a quack pushing a religion would call that a drenching.

    http://www.ces.purdue.edu/extmedia/gwc/gwc-2.pdf

  6. #6 darwinsdog
    June 22, 2010

    Gene Logsdon: now there’s a name from the past. I think I read his “Two Acre Eden” in the early ’70s. More recently, he has inspired me to feed corn & wheat to my chickens without cracking or grinding it first. I’d always heard that without being cracked, these grains aren’t very digestible. We have a hand-cranked grinder that is very time & labor intensive. Grinding the grain by hand is a real chore. Awhile back we bought an electric grinder but it doesn’t work very well. Actually, it works too well in that even with the most course screen it tends to make corn meal & wheat flour out of the grain. Logsdon says that he’s fed corn & wheat to his hens for thirty years without grinding it, and they’ve done just fine on it. He doesn’t feed commercial mash either. We’re still going to supplement the hens with Layena but are trying the scratch grains unground.

    As for no- or low-till, I say dump the moldboard plow (read “Plowman’s Folly” for reasons why) but till rather than spray glycosphate or other biocides. The fields may benefit from a deep ripping with a chisel plow every few years.

  7. #7 Don
    June 22, 2010

    Mike:
    Can you cut out the ad hominems, perhaps? Labeling people whom you apparently disagree with “food science denialists” is hardly any way to get them to listen to you.

    And did you read the article I posted earlier? You might want to and then ask yourself if those who don’t think it’s a good idea to rely on herbicides year after year are really as wrongheaded as you apparently think they are.

  8. #8 Dacks
    June 22, 2010

    As is usual in agriculture these days, there are no easy answers. I’d like to know more about the no-till methods, both conventional and organic. I read a few years about a crimping machine that Rodale was developing, to roll over the cover crop and kill it, without tilling. Has this been employed effectively? And how can we small farmers promote no-till without major labor increases?

  9. #9 Ewan R
    June 22, 2010

    Didn’t catch the “repeated drenching” first time reading – that is rather inaccurate as Mike points out above – having watched the sprayers going over a couple fields locally (the same no-till fields I mentioned earlier if memory serves) there was certainly a decent quantity going on, but drenching conjures up images of fields literally swamped with herbicide – this categorically isn’t the case – and while it isn’t perhaps politic to start throwing about terms like “food science denialist” it also isn’t exactly truthful to talk about fields drenched in herbicides either – it’s a nice image to stick out there if you’re looking for converts to an ideology by means of demonizing the opposing ideology, but I’d imagine there are good enough reasons to get away from petroleum based ag practices without having to invent things for a quick soundbite.

    Don – while Roundup resistance is an issue which can arise through overuse of a single herbicide, it isn’t necessarily a reason to completely avoid using roundup – afaik the number of weeds with resistance is relatively low, and to be honest calling them superweeds, as the NPR article does, is kinda silly and along the same lines as claiming that fields get drenched in roundup – if you don’t utilize glyphosate products then glyphosate resistant weeds are no more super than their non-resistant brethren (probably less so, as there is likely a deleterious effect of the trait in a non-pressure environment) – it may be that with the advent of resistance, and increasing resistance, that different tank mixes may have to be used, or some tillage may be required to smack down the resistant weeds – imo you’re better off, in terms of soil preservation, using roundup to facilitate no-till for as long as you can – lets assume it takes 2 years for the advent of glyphosate resistant weeds which make using this no-till method useless (a relatively worst case scenario) – that’s still 2 years in which you didn’t have to till – the fact the weeds are roundup resistant makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to any other weed management technique you’d use – its not as if going RR no-till for 6 years suddenly means that you can’t go back to a traditional tilling method in year 7 – nor would it make this traditional tilling method any less effective, my guess is you’re far more likely to get a decade or so before you really have to worry about resistance, and with various techniques to work around this it may not totally knock using roundup as a technique anyway.

  10. #10 Don
    June 22, 2010

    Ewan, you’re right about use of herbicides. (I should say that I’m not so committed to “organic” that I think it’s always, everywhere, and in every situation wrong to use them. I only wish someone other than Monsanto held the patent on glyphosate.) And the article’s description of the resistant weeds as “superweeds” is a bit overdone–but the media loves catchy words and phrases like this: similarly, they call antibiotic resistant pathogens “superbugs.”

    But I have to take issue with yours and Mike’s taking issue with Sharon over her use of the phrase “drenched with herbicide.” Clearly, Sharon is using hyperbole to make her point. I see nothing wrong with that. If you want to take her literally, that’s your prerogative, I suppose, but use of figurative language should not be verboten. It’s a far cry from Mike’s characterization of Sharon and her readers as “organic pushers” and “food science deniers.”

  11. #11 Prometheus
    June 22, 2010

    “The pretension reaches hilariously ludicrous proportions”

    “….the farm uses a Case Turbo 330 tillage tool to cultivate rather than a moldboard plow.”

    What is hilarious is the authors blistering ignorance.

    What is ludicrous is they let this moron write and people read it.

    If he presumes to write about agriculture without knowing the difference between a plow and a tiller he should not be allowed out of the van without a helmet.

    What is patently apparent is that he will not be satisfied with any form of agriculture that does not involve a stoop shouldered granny wandering a field of weeds with a sharp stick.

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    June 22, 2010

    Mike, the average no-till production uses herbicide treatment two to three times over the course of the season, so IMHO, citing the recommended level (USDA estimate is that more than half of US farmers over apply both herbicides and pesticides) and giving us a one-time use formula doesn’t make any sense.

    I’m not an organic purist by any means, and I don’t believe Logsdon is either – I say pretty explicitly that my goal is to radically reduce inputs in agriculture, but I’m not a pure organicist, and there are circumstances in which I think occasional herbicide use is acceptable. That said, I’m concerned about the links that have emerged to amphibian loss, though, with roundup and its generics, and also about the misconceptions that something like “no till” expresses. Or, for example, the assumption that round-up is generally the only herbicide used. 70% of no till, for example, is produced using something like Monsanto’s “Residual Herbicide Applied” systems that include atrazine and acetanelide. I have no objections to people consuming atrazine, but I think they have a right to know that they are.

    Sharon

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    June 22, 2010

    Prometheus, I actually think that’s a pretty inaccurate description of Logsdon, who actually defends the practice of tillage in some of his analyses. He says here that he practices it. And I don’t see any evidence that he doesn’t know the difference – he admits there is a difference, but also points out that there is a substantial amount of soil disturbance occurring either way.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Ewan R
    June 22, 2010

    I think calling antibiotic resistant bacteria, particularly multiple antibiotic resistant bacteria “superbugs” is a lot more meaningful than calling herbicide resistant weeds “superweeds” – nobody is advocating living in, nor have we lived in for a couple of generations at least, a world where we don’t use antibiotics to control bacterial infections – super bugs are super bugs because we have no line of defence against them – super weeds on the other hand are generally named such by those already opposed to the use of herbicides (never understood why people opposed to the use of herbicides get worked up about weeds that herbicides don’t work on – surely the ideal world in this case is one in which all plants are resistant to every herbicide) where the old tried and trusted (and destructive to the soil) methods will still work – and where newer methods may also work (either other herbicides, or other methods which don’t require chemical inputs)

    Hyperbole about being drenched in roundup to me isn’t helpful to the conversation at all – most of what Sharon gets at is pertinent and needs thinking about, talking about crops drenched in roundup imo subtracts from this message (in exactly the same way that calling those opposed to High-input ag “food science denialists does” – it removes (or may remove) people from the conversation as they judge not on the arguement, but on the erroneous superfluous comments contained therein (I’m probably as guilty of these insertions as anyone, but then that’s why I snipe from the sidelines in comments rather than writing my own blog) – I’ve encountered many opponents of GM/Convnetional Ag who categorically do take it at face value that their produce is literally soaked in roundup – as if the fields are sprayed on a daily basis from emergence to harvest with gallons per plant, perpetuating this myth is a great way of cementing this imagery in peoples minds and essentially removing them from a rational debate – I don’t necessarily think this is what Sharon was trying to do, but I still think it’s something to watch out for.

    I only wish someone other than Monsanto held the patent on glyphosate

    nobody holds a patent on glyphosate – I rather wish Monsanto still did, would do wonders for my job security and 401k, pesky generics caused the price to tank and with it roundup profitability.

  15. #15 Sharon Astyk
    June 22, 2010

    Ewan, fair enough – perhaps you are right that I’m overassuming that people really don’t know that “drenched in” is hyperbole for “use too much” rather than literal drenching. I won’t change it for this purpose, but I will watch my language in the future. I don’t like the word “superweeds” either, actually – mostly because I think it isn’t very accurate.

    That said, however, I do think that the problem works both ways – advocates of HT crops often imply that by using roundup and its generics, the only herbicide people are being exposed to is glyphosate, which is patently incorrect – discussions of glyphosate farming almost always emphasize its comparative innocuousness, even though most no-till programs are also using other herbicides as well. I also think that the documentation that actual application rates are higher than recommended is pretty good. It works both ways – just as the language of “no till” works to conceal how much soil disturbance is occurring, I think the more moderate language you’d prefer I use works to conceal some of the realities of HT cropping. Both overstatement and scientific moderation have their prices in discussion.

    Sharon

  16. #16 Ewan R
    June 22, 2010

    I’d agree that you need to compare the impact of the whole system utilized, rather than just compare glyphosate to another herbicide pound/pound or application/application – afaik the numbers generally come out in favor of regimes which utilize glyphosate as it does replace more impactful herbicides – although doesn’t necessarily eliminate them.

    Equally the same approach needs to be taken when looking at Bt – it eliminates a whole slew of insecticides, but doesn’t eliminate all insecticide use.

    IMO so long as impact is down, utilization is a good thing.
    If “no till” (using the umbrella term for everything from absoltuely not touching the field at all, to pretty close to old school plowing of the field) reduces soil erosion then IMO it’s a good thing (although ideally you’d want a full environmental impact quotient type measure – if you don’t disturb the soil much but kill everything in a ten mile radius clearly this isn’t a good thing)

    On concealing the realities of HT cropping – not convinced on this. If something truly happens then state that it happens. If farmers use 25% more glyphosate (to quote a figure from the manual of proctological statistics) than recommended then say this, not that the crops are drenched (if I spray myself 3 times, rather than 2 times with a spray bottle of water I’m still not drenched) – if HT cropping results in some other widespread damage state this also – for instance the damage/potential damage to Amphibians – this is something that is supported by the literature, or the potential for spray drift (which given the sharp deliniation between dead grass at the edge of local fields sprayed with glyphosate and dead grass shouldn’t ever be a problem – where it is people are just doing it wrong) etc etc – anyone who claims any system of farming is without problems is just making things up – I think that it’s best to compare to what was in use previously and whether the change utilized is a good one or not.

    Obviously in the case of adoption of “no-till” practices with HT cropping my feel is that the change is a good one most of the time, whether 100% of previously lost soil is saved, or only 25% (figures pulled from previous source – my guess is that at some point there’ll be a tipping point where the benefit simply isn’t there any more (at least in terms of soil preservation))

  17. #17 Jim Thomerson
    June 22, 2010

    I was in Illinois from 1965 until 1999. It has gotten a little better, but so many of those people have no idea how to farm. There were thousands of acres of corn planted in rows straight up and down hill. Green belts by ditches and streams, forget it! I have a wonderful photo of a really nice farm house and barn which are going to be separated by a deep gully next rain. The corn is planted in rows straight up and down the side of the hill the structures sit on. In Texas I saw contour plowing and grassed drainages right after WWII. By the time I left Illinois in ’99, I had began to see these practices in a few fields. I know they were pushing no till, but don’t know how successfully.

  18. #18 Sheila Leavitt, M.D.
    June 22, 2010

    Agricultural glyphosate use in the U.S. was estimated by the EPA in 2001 at 85-90 million pounds per year.

  19. #19 Prometheus
    June 23, 2010

    “Agricultural glyphosate use in the U.S. was estimated by the EPA in 2001 at 85-90 million pounds per year.”

    And?

    It’s human toxicity level is less than sea water…. also according to the EPA.

    Sharon,

    Sorry to knee jerk on Gene “two acres” Logsdon, we have been doing the organic gardening thing for a long time and Gene used to be obligatory reading. One of the things about his very long career in writing about organic farming that is though his writing can be entertaining, it is not very practical.

    What becomes rapidly clear about Gene is that he is a pessimistic anti-modernist. This is always a popular theme and but one that demonstrates you were a jack ass within a couple of generations.

    It’s like complaining about the morals of teenagers.

    The proof that tilling is defeating deep disc is that the plowshares are being beaten into woks.

    If you have never cooked with a discada I recommend them highly and it is an excellent proposition to adjusting a cooking method to accommodate refugees.

    I make breakfast for 40 once a year in a cultivator dic. Guinea eggs, smoked elk sausage and tortillas al Disco.

    *stops to put marbles back in bag*

    Wow. Could my comment be more all over the place?

    I think I am experiencing late onset ADD.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!