“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.