Let's till the soil the right way for the right reasons

Headlines scream "we're losing billions of tons of soil every year" (the result of rain and wind beating on fields which have been left shiny and bare by the old practices of moldboard plowing up and down the hills). Some would say that's bad news.

However, such generalized headlines only add to the confusion about the severity and source of the problem. Soil erosion is "site" specific and varies substantially among farms, regions, and rainstorms.

Also, the fact that the old "soil erosion equation" has not really been kept current from the standpoint of data collection is a serious concern. If this is true, we are likely to get public policy based on "no facts." That'sm bad news!

Now for some good news.

Instead of plowing the soil surface shiny and bare, farmers can reduce erosion by 50 to 90 percent by such methods as chisel plowing, till planting, and no-till, thus allowing soil to maintain long-term productivity. Fortunately , these soil-saving conservation tillage practices that leave a protective blanket of stalks, husks, and straw on top of the bare soil are on a dramatic upswing.

In 1981, the No-Till Farmer magazine estimates, farmers used various forms of conservation tillage on a total of 96.7 million acres (nearly one-third of the cropland in the United States) compared to only a total of 20 million acres 10 years ago.

Yes, we have come a long way, but about one-third of our cultivated cropland still needs some form of soil conservation treatment; so we have a long way to go. Unfortunately, many people have pointed more and more to regulation as the way to achieve soil conservation.

Walker and Timmons (1980) of Iowa State University suggest that a statewide ban on fall plowing and straight-row cultivation on slopes would be the most cost-effective policy to reduce soil loss by 90 percent. The old saying "getting the wrong people to do the right thing for the wrong reason" applies here. Getting Congress, or the state legislatures, or government agencies (the wrong people) to ban certain tillage practices for alleged improvement in water quality (the wrong reason) is not the most satisfactory way to reduce soil erosion (the right thing).

Today farmers' attitudes and tillage practices are changing but, I believe, for the right reasons.

I recall severe rain and dust storms one spring in the late 1960s that hurt some of our newly emerging corn. I'm sure this helped Dad make the decision not to moldboard plow any more soybean ground. That went against the neighborhood practice of plowing everything shiny and bare. But, lo and behold, a decade later most all the neighbors have quit plowing bean ground and now are leaving more protective residue on the surface.

Dad still plows his cornfield, but I've noticed that the field isn't as black and shiny as it used to be. There are a lot of stalks left on top. He's tried the chisel plow. This year, he casually mentioned to me that he'd like to rent the till planter from the local soil conservation district and try it out on a few acres. That's quite a shift for a 75-year-young farmer.

In the early years of conservation tillage, yields were somewhat smaller than from conventional methods. Management of the conservation tillage system was not well understood. It is little wonder that the new practices were not readily adopted. Fortunately, present yields under no-till and till plant systems are now usually equal to or better than yields from old methods.

The Cooperative Extension Service has promoted the sight and sound aspects of conservation tillage now for a number of years. A survey of farmers attending informational meetings and tours over the last three years in the Spencer extension area in northwest Iowa, indicated that 47 percent had changed tillage methods as a result of what they had seen or heard. Along with reduced soil erosion -- estimates Tony Koenig, Spencer area soil, water, and waste management specialist -- additional effects of the changes are: (1) 456,000 gallons of fuel saved per year; (2) yearly production costs reduced $1,451,320; and (3) increased yields resulting in additional annual production of 32,000 bushels of soybeans and 116,000 bushels of corn.

Within the last year, a number of soil conservation districts have shifted from just "preaching the gospel" to actually giving farmer a chance to test the concept of leaving the residue on top of the soil surface, thus keeping more soil in place on the hillsides. Some districts will loan or rent conservation tillage equipmen, often in cooperation with local farm implement companies. This has allowed many farmers to get "hands-on" experience without the monetary and mental anguish involved in plunging the whole farm headlong into a totally different tillage system with all its attendant unknowns.

For instance, last spring in Franklin and Butler Countries, 33 Iowa farmers signed up to rent one of three conservation tillage planters available from the local soil conservation district.

We still have a long way to go. But looking to government to "ban erosion" or to cure it after the fact is defective reasoning. Local people helping others save time and money and prevent soil erosion sounds like tilling the soil the right way for the right reasons. And we're doing it.

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