Farmers encouraged to use no-till to protect the soil for the future

WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. – No-till was the buzz word at the Tri-State Conservation Tillage Conference March 6 at the Radisson Hotel in West Middlesex, Pa.

About 160 people in attendance were given a long list of reasons to practice conservation tillage by experts in the field. Some of those reasons included keeping carbon in the soil, preventing erosion and improving the soil nutrition.

Speakers Don Reicosky, USDA-ARS soil scientist, and Carlos Crovetto, a Chilean no-till farmer, said farmers need to take a more aggressive role in protecting the soil.

“Big changes are coming for farmers with soil management. They need to realize what a tremendous responsibility they have,” said Crovetto. “Farmers pay too much attention to the plant and not enough attention to the soil.”

Farming in Chile.

Crovetto has not plowed his land in Chequen, Chile, for 20 years, and he says he has seen a immense change in the makeup of his soil that was once badly eroded.

By leaving the stubble on the ground after harvest, the level of organic matter in the soil has increased. Because of the increased organic matter, Crovetto has not spent any money on phosphate for six years.

USDA’s Reicosky explained the impact different tillage methods have on soil’s carbon content. Of the tillage practices tested, using a moldboard plow resulted in the greatest loss of carbon and the greatest emission of greenhouse gases that adversely affect the ozone layer and are linked to the effects of global warming.

“Intensive tillage leads to more erosion, changes in the soil air permeability, change from diffusion to convective flow, rapid gas exchange, enhanced biological oxidation, incorporated residue, maximum residue soil contact, accelerated carbon dioxide loss, etc., etc.,” said Reicosky.

Soil critters.

Reicosky said carbon is the keystone to the biological system, and the biological nutrient cycling requires carbon. The soil is the home to many “critters” – everything from earthworms to microorganisms to fungi – that contribute to aeration and nutrient cycling.

“The soil is a natural biological system that contains a lot of life and when tilled intensively is dramatically changed. It can be considered analogous to human reaction to a combination of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado and forest fire all rolled into one,” said Reicosky.

Crovetto said the farmers who burn the stubble after harvest are making a huge mistake in caring for the soil. Charcoal and burned crop residue ash are not preferred by soil microbes. Researchers have found lower microbial activity as measured by respiration rate when the soil system was fed charcoal or ash as opposed to stubble.

“Fire is the face of death. Never should farmers burn the fields or residue. The farmer who sows without plowing can harvest twice, both the grain and the straw. Returning stubble to the soil helps recharge the carbon and is the payment to the soil for the grain it produced,” said Crovetto.

“It is of vital importance that the farmer remembers the grain is for man, the stubble is for the soil.”

Carbon credits.

With the possibilities of payment for carbon credits, Reicosky says it’s more important than ever to give special attention to the carbon in the soil.

“Now with possible carbon credits, carbon is real money. Carbon in the soil is like money in the bank,” said Reicosky.

The speakers agreed that conservation agriculture is a win-win strategy. The farmers can grow food and fiber to feed the world, and, at the same time, they can protect the environment and all its resources. The role the farmer takes will greatly impact all areas of society and the environment, the speakers said.

Reicosky said quality food production and economic and environmentally friendly management practices that are socially acceptable will lead to sustainable production and be mutually beneficial to farmers and society.

“We are not the owners of the soil. The soil belongs to every living animal in the world,” said Crovetto. “We have to leave a better world for our children. We have tremendous knowledge today, and we have to change.”

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