During fall harvest and the weeks following, Ohio was blessed with absolutely beautiful weather – and the trend has continued so far in December.
As I drive around the county, I only wish after harvest was over, many farmers had gotten into their car and driven off on a family vacation. You see, the problem with nice weather during harvest is that farmers complete the harvest earlier.
You’re probably thinking, “There he goes again … crazy thoughts running through his head, onto his keyboard and into the newspaper!” Hear me out … I’m not casting blame or chastising anyone. It’s just that I have been around the farming community over 40 years and I’ve seen this before.
Because the weather was so good during and after harvest, farmers jumped out of the combine and into the tractor and began tilling the soil. I wish they had gone on vacation instead. With the exception of smoothing up areas of a field that were rutted up during the wet spring, I can find no other reason to till the soil in the fall (or any other time of the year for that matter, but that’s another week’s topic).
When the soil is tilled in the fall, it lies bare all winter, exposed to the elements. Wind and rain break down the soil particles which, along with the attached phosphorous and nitrogen, are then washed into nearby surface waters.
Fall tillage is one of the most erosive practices that can be applied to the soil. For example, let’s compare the soil loss on a Bennington silt loam soil on a moderately flat slope, an average soil type and slope in Delaware County. If a farmer grows corn one year, then fall plows and plants soybeans the second year, and then fall plows after harvest, the soil loss would equal 7.2 tons per acre per year. If he/she grows corn the first year, then fall plows, and then in the spring plants no-till soybeans, the average soil loss would be 4.2 tons per acre per year. If tillage is eliminated during both years (no fall tillage and the crops are both planted by the no-till method), the soil loss would be less than one ton per acre per year. At that rate, the soil is actually in a building process, meaning that the soil is regenerating faster than being lost through erosion.
Adding a year of small grain, such as wheat or oats, and planting cover crops in the fall, in lieu of fall tillage, will go a long way to building the health of your soil. These practices, in addition to no-till planting, will increase the organic matter, increase the moisture-holding capacity, reduce soil loss through erosion, and increase the microbial activity within the soil. In addition, the valuable nutrients needed to grow the crops will remain in the soil, available for next year’s plant growth, and will not wash into nearby surface waters where they become pollutants.
The next time weather conditions are favorable and you find you have time on your hands, avoid the “tillage two-step.” Take a vacation, travel to some exotic place, or find another hobby that doesn’t include a plow … whatever it takes to keep you out of the field until spring! Your soil will be healthier for it, not to mention the family might be happier, as well.
And as a public service, if you feel an addiction to till the soil, don’t hesitate to call me at 740-368-1921. I will be glad to talk you down!
Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.