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Corn+Soybean Digest

Think Different: Tillage traditions die hard

Think Different: Tillage traditions die hard

Oh, the aroma of fresh-tilled soil. You know what I’m talking about — that amazing and wonderful odor given off as steel slices and turns dark that golden carpet of crop residue. Yes, the moment that aroma engulfs my senses it takes me right back to the tractor and plow or disk of my youth (late ’60s/early ’70s). So fast-forward to a rural Minnesota scene I witnessed in late October. Suddenly that wonderful scent turned sour given what I saw. Dark fields with little to no corn residue.

I cringed. It is frustrating, knowing wind, rain and snow will drive valuable top- soil away from these fields, dragging with it nutrients that we must protect.

Yes, tillage traditions can die hard. If you’re practicing excessive tillage due to the belief that it helps residue decompose faster, it mostly does not. Read our research story “Residue breakdown myths.” It’s all about the soil environment. Many longtime no-tillers have little problem with residue buildup. Check out the sequential photo gallery story that shows how strip-till residue decomposed in one season.

Speaking of soil health and the microbes that help residue decompose faster to build soil organic matter, read “Testing soil health tests” to help you check the health of your fields.

Cover crop use as a conservation and soil health practice is continuing to grow and pay off across the nation, including such benefits as increased crop yields, better resilience to weather extremes, less soil erosion, improved nutrient management, greater carbon sequestration and enhanced cropping system diversity.

Recently, a diverse cross-section of more than 40 supporting national groups — from traditional ag organizations and commodity groups to major corporations and environmental organizations — agreed to a common written vision for soil health and cover crops.

“Cover crops and soil health represent a systems-based approach to enhancing crop production and profitability, protection of soil and water resources, and land stewardship,” states the group.

“Ultimately, support and innovation from decision-makers in both the public and private sectors are needed to ensure that this great opportunity to transform American farming reaches its full potential, benefiting as many farmers, communities and families as possible.” The group recommends that USDA seek to broadly support cover crops and soil health, including through a comprehensive, strategic plan with clear, outcome-based goals for research, education, Extension, data collection, financial and technical assistance, credit, risk management, and other relevant policies and programs.

While I wish these practices could catch fire as quickly as Roundup Ready crops were adopted, I know better. That industry-changing practice was quick and easy — and cover crops and building soil health are neither quick nor easy. But the long-term benefits are huge. How about we build for the next generation, OK?

I sincerely thank you for reading, for viewing more valuable content on, for subscribing to our newsletters and for being willing to Think Different.

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