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 and labor costs. But according to Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indianapolis, 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 and reduced drought resiliency for Indiana farms. “Tillage is incredibly destructive to the soil structure and to the soil ecosystem,” Fisher said. “In healthy soil you have 50 percent air and water – which is made possible by the pore space in the soil – and 50 percent mineral and organic matter. But tillage collapses and destroys that structure, making the soil vulnerable to erosion and compaction,” he said.
The possibility of another dry year should also have producers rethinking their use of tillage, Fisher 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. In short, tillage tends to limit the availability of water in the soil,” Fisher said. “And that could prove very costly during those long, summer dry spells.”
Fortunately, more and more producers in Indiana are farming with systems to build soil health, Fisher said. “Using a suite of conservation practices, like quality no-till and diverse cover crops,” he said, “they’re keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and they’re keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round.”
And according to Fisher, 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.