Let’s go way back. We’ve been farming for a long time, and we’ve been tilling for a long time. We need to ask ourselves this question — why are we doing what we’re doing?

For thousands of years, farmers have used tillage to accomplish agronomic objectives. I divide these objectives into 2 general categories — residue management and soil conditioning. Do we need traditional tillage practices to accomplish these objectives? 

We need to be honest about the costs of tillage. There are capital, energy and labor costs. You crunch those numbers every year. But there are other costs that are difficult to measure, like increased susceptibility to wind and water erosion, compaction and crusting. There are even more complicated costs like the simplification of soil food webs that changes organic matter, nutrient cycling and disease susceptibility. 

Real costs and benefits are part of the complicated dance of agriculture that we must try and balance. One strategy to minimize the cost of tillage is to never till. There are people who do it well, but there’s a reason why many no-tillers don’t actually never till. They often integrate tillage in some way, like strip-till. 

Diversify Your Rotation

There are several different approaches to strip-till. Maybe someday soon your system will be a little greener. Whether you bring in wheat, hybrid rye or canola, there are ways to bring more green into your fields without growing cover crops. Diversifying crop rotations with something like wheat, which requires you to be more strategic about timely planting and harvesting, does more for your soil than winter cover crops that are planted late and killed early.  

When you bring more green into the field, it changes your biology. When there’s more biology, whether its roots or earthworms, it’s changing deeper parts of the soil that really matter for drainage and root health. 

Tillage with Biology

There’s a lot of interesting science surrounding bio-till, which can be defined as improving soil structure with plant roots to boost the growth of crops. There’s new science that’s discussing not just tillage with steel, but tillage with biology.

There was an article I read when I was earning my master’s degree more than 20 years ago that woke me up to the fact that roots notice other roots, and not just other roots that are currently growing. They also notice the previous roots. Those roots either encourage or discourage them to grow in the same place. The research in this particular article found that with corn after corn, only 18% of the roots were growing down where a corn root had been before, whereas 41% of corn roots that were following alfalfa were growing down alfalfa root channels. Corn roots like to follow alfalfa roots. 

“Roots notice other roots…”

Innovative strip-tillers are translating new science into practical systems, and they’re doing it better than any scientist can. I spend a lot of time in the summer at the Western Illinois University Organic Research Farm. The experience allows me to approach what farmers are doing in terms of understanding practical agronomy — taking it out of the classroom and making it authentic. That’s the most important reason for why I grow corn and soybeans every summer. So that when I teach students, I’m not just telling them what a textbook says. I know the challenges of production.

Systems Over Inputs

If you’re thinking about incorporating cover crops into your strip-till operation, think of it as a systems approach. How do cover crops fit with the other pieces of your system? This quote says it all: “When cover crops have failed, it is often due to being managed only as an additional input, rather than as part of a modified production system.” 

Look at systems designed for maximum benefit and minimum risk. Cover crops can be strategically placed just like strips of tillage. Find a way to strategically place both, so they fit best. 

During those long nights in the winter when you’re pondering what to do next, think about ways that you could create more of a system and less of an input approach. Not just for cover crops, but for everything you do.