Old habits are hard to break. Most of us who advocate reduced-tillage practices have, at one time, been tillage addicts ourselves.
However, after having watched the wholesale loss of topsoil and the reduction in soil quality resulting from excessive tillage, we’ve come to realize that something must be done to preserve our land and our ability to produce food and fiber crops.
Sometimes this doesn’t “set” well with some who look at farming strictly from a standpoint of profit from each year’s crop.
A statement we have adopted with regard to the flexibility of no-till is that “it will work on any land”. I still believe this is true, assuming the grower is willing to put forth the effort required.
I’ve also come to accept that the idea that strict no-till will work better in some situations than in others.
When we move no-till to the river bottom, where the soil is almost flat, we may have problems with surface and internal drainage and low soil temperatures that cause problems in planting and emergence.
No-till may work fine on the sloping fields, while the bottomland fields may require the construction of beds to improve drainage and allow the soil to warm more rapidly.
There is something that we all have to face sooner or later — that tillage is used as a means to “homogenize” the land to some degree. By this I mean that tillage usually allows the same settings on planters and other equipment to work well on almost all of the land rather than being right for one area and wrong for another.
“Dyed in the wool” no-tillers have learned to accept this disadvantage as a justifiable tradeoff for the benefits of almost eliminating soil erosion, improvements in soil quality and increased availability of moisture for crops. Others simply cannot break the habit of tillage because of the simplicity they enjoy during the short period of field preparation and stand establishment.
Other parts of the nation — particularly those areas where the predominant soil type is sand — have for around 20 years been utilizing a strip-till system.
It seems that most people thought this system was only suited to sandy soils, and that it would not be practical for others, particularly the heavy clays. This opinion is being challenged as a few growers in other regions are experimenting with this system that may offer an alternative method to bridge the gap between tillage and no-till.
If it can be proven, this system may offer a way to actually “have our cake and eat it too” in that it provides a narrow band of tilled soil while leaving the balance of the field undisturbed.
Trials have shown that strip-till yields, as well as tilled, where tillage has enjoyed an advantage, and fields that have performed best in no-till continue yielding as well as before the change.
From a microbiological point of view, strip-till allows for the preservation of most of the soil life that has been established in a no-till soil. It seems that most of the soil organisms are capable of reoccupying the tilled strip fairly rapidly.
Dealing With Compaction
Strip-till also offers a way to deal with shallow compaction, fragipans and, depending on the implement used, may be capable of constructing a small raised bed on which to plant.
Conveniently, we now have guidance systems that will allow for planting with this degree of accuracy if it is done in separate passes, or the strip-tillage implement and the planter may be coupled to do the job in one pass.
Strip-till doesn’t eliminate the need for common sense in its use. Soil loss can still be a problem if it’s done incorrectly, but the measures needed to avoid the initiation of soil loss should be apparent to anyone who has worked with the older systems. Implemented properly, it may give us most of the advantages of both tillage worlds.
I must admit that I still believe that no-till can be utilized as the primary system in most situations. The move to strip-till necessitates another heavy and expensive implement that will require more horsepower, fuel, and labor to operate. We can expect to have a learning curve for strip-till, just as with any new idea; but for some all of this may be justifiable. This question must be answered by the individual producer.