Spring tillage could do more damage than good

Spring tillage is a tradition that is steeped deeply into American agriculture. But more and more producers are realizing that this iconic tradition is costing them —in more ways than one.

 Tillage, which was once considered necessary in order to prepare a proper seed bed for planting, comes at a high price in terms of increasing diesel prices, lost time and labor costs.

 But according to Greg Brann, a soil health specialist with United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the bigger, long-term cost may come at the expense of the health and function of the soil itself —resulting in lower yields, higher input costs, reduced drought resiliency and increased erosion for Tennessee farms.

 “Tillage is incredibly destructive to the soil structure and to the soil ecosystem,” Brann said. “In healthy soil you have 50 percent air and water — which is made possible by the pore space in the soil. But tillage collapses and destroys soil structure formed by roots, earthworms and other soil biology this makes the soil vulnerable to erosion, compaction and runoff.”

 The possibility of another dry year should also have producers rethinking their use of tillage, Brann said.

 “Because it destroys organic matter and soil structure, tillage actually reduces the soil’s infiltration capacity,” he said. “Additionally, studies have shown that each tillage pass can release a half an inch of soil moisture from each acre. Tillage tends to limit the availability of water in the soil, it just seals over and water doesn’t infiltrate. And that could prove very costly during those long, summer dry spells.”

 “More and more producers in Tennessee are farming with systems to build soil health,” John Rissler, NRCS Acting State Conservationist said. “Using conservation practices, like no-till and diverse cover crops, they’re keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and they’re keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round.”

 According to Rissler, the benefits of improved soil health extend beyond the farm. “Producers who improve the health of their soil are also increasing its water-holding capacity, which reduces runoff that can cause flooding. Improved infiltration keeps nutrients and sediment from being carried off-site into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams,” he said.

 Producers interested in learning more about the basics and benefits of soil health, or in receiving technical and financial assistance to implement a soil health management system, should contact their local NRCS office http://www.tn.nrcs.usda. gov/. Additional soil health information is available at www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Posted on Monday, April 8, 2013 at 9:06 am