The View From Rural Route #8

I’m not fretting about those fields farmers deep-tilled this fall after they finished harvest.

If they had been tilling them at all the past two or three years, chances are those fields really needed some big-time, deep-down pan-busting. That’s because we had two straight wet falls and then a wet spring this year and a lot of them were worked too wet in order to plant corn and soybeans.

That meant that every pass of a disc, cultivator or plow, not to mention the heavy grain carts and giant combines loading and unloading in turn rows and elsewhere later during harvest, left a hard layer of compacted soil. And only those deep chisels can really pull those apart and bring them to a place where the freeze-thaw action of winter can help break them up and restore tilth.

I know that some have raised their eyebrows at all the obviously expensive hard pulls that are slow and consume lots of fuel and they also see the possible exposure of all that bare earth to the wind this winter.

I talked to a successful farmer the other day who is also knowledgeable about most aspects of his profession – and it is a profession, folks – about this practice that had experts grudgingly admitting it might do some good if the soil wasn’t too wet way down there. Even so, compaction was only a problem, some said, if the hard pan proves to be root limiting. Some hard pans I have known you could sell as sidewalks. If they didn’t limit roots they couldn’t qualify as hard pans.

But I do like deep tilling, I admit. Now, my farmer friend also noted that after a no-till field has been established for a number of years (around 8, he said) the soil is in really good condition. That’s because the roots and worms have bored and chiseled it, letting in oxygen and moisture. Also, a no-tilled field, I read, will in central Kansas add up to seven inches equivalent of moisture each year just by saving it from evaporation. That is a critical difference in marginal country. Conventional tillage tools, of course, are absent, so there are no hard pans made by those.

It is also true that traditionalists who loved tilling (playing in the dirt) have from time to time wrecked a beautiful no-till field. And they have sheepishly admitted that pulling the plows through no-tilled ground was like running a knife through room temperature butter.

But because we’re talking about fields that are annually tilled, the guys needed to get into them with deep tools to break them up. They are doing what needs to be done for future good crops, which are needed to feed the world more than ever.

Also, I’d like to know that if research has measured all the possible benefits of deep tillage. Some old-timers used to talk about turning in the green manure, and burying the weed seeds and bringing up some nutrients the plants otherwise wouldn’t reach until way late, if ever. And there was the thing about putting air back into the soil and letting the freeze-thaw cycles of winter pulverize and re-aggregate the soil particles, and catching the snow and the water and nitrogen in the snow with all those jagged mounds of raw earth jutting upward from their furrowed valleys for scores of acres at a time.

Plus, and this is just me, plowed or deep chiseled fields look astoundingly attractive.

Jim Suber is an award-winning farm, ranch, and rural life columnist residing on Rural Route No. 8, Topeka.

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Posted by on Nov 15 2010. Filed under Columns, Rural Route #8. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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