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Why you should leave soil untouched over winter

Tom J. Bechman combine harvesting corn
LAST PASS: Here’s a case for making the combine the last tool to cross the field before planting next spring. And these reasons are above and beyond the obvious benefit of erosion control.
Salute Soil Health: A conservationist pleads farmers to forgo fall tillage trips.

As resource conservation professionals, we try to give farmers good, solid information to chew on and digest weeks, if not months, before they need to make a decision about what we’re recommending — but not today. This article is a blatant last-ditch effort to try and persuade you to reduce the amount of tillage you do this fall.

You keep telling yourself you’re going to try reducing tillage or planting cover crops, but the moment passes and you’re not ready to take the leap. It takes a lot of mental and physical planning to change your cropping system, and without planning, you’ll never feel prepared to step off that cliff.

So why not now? Are you in a position to forgo that last tillage pass across the field this fall? The gut response may be no, but there are a lot of benefits worth considering:

Fuel saved is money saved. Implementing a no-till cropping system uses, on average, fewer than 2 gallons of diesel fuel per acre, whereas land in conventional-tillage systems consumes over 6 gallons per acre. That is over a 60% reduction in fuel costs every year. Although diesel may not seem like an expensive input now, at one point in time — not that long ago — it was much more expensive. Imagine reducing that direct cost by 60%.

Time and labor aren’t free, even if you don’t pay yourself directly. Whether you are doing the tillage passes or hiring someone, there are other costs to consider when it comes to tillage. Of course, you don’t pay yourself in the same way you pay hired help or the kid next door, but your time is still worth something. You can gain back a 40-hour work week by eliminating tillage on a 1,000-acre operation. That’s time and labor saved to invest in other things.

It’s time to start building healthy soil. No matter the scenario, now never seems like a good time to start anything new. There is always so much going on, and you’re spread so thin to get done what you need to get done, let alone start something new. But ask yourself, why not now?

Humans are notoriously good at kicking the can down the road when it comes to trying something new. Now is not that time. We are all becoming more aware of the benefits of healthy soil in agriculture: increased resilience to weather extremes, more efficient nutrient cycling, increased ability to infiltrate water and release it when needed, reduced soil erosion, and increased carbon sequestration. These benefits aren’t realized overnight. It takes time and effort to build healthy soil.

Farmers who have been in soil health systems for years now talk about wishing they had started sooner and wishing they hadn’t held back.

As you look at the end of this farm year, consider reducing your soil disturbance. Take your fall tillage pass out of your plans, or make a commitment now to eliminate the tillage pass planned for next spring.

McLain is a soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. She writes on behalf of the Indiana Conservation Partnership.


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