For Better Soil, Drought Resilience and Profit
Madison, Wis…… Spring tillage is a tradition that runs deep in American agriculture. But more
and more producers are realizing that this tradition is costing them – in more ways than one. The
possibility of another dry year might have producers rethinking their use of tillage. Traditional
tillage practices, which were once considered necessary in order to prepare a proper seed bed
for planting, come at a high price with increasing diesel prices and labor costs.
However, according to Jimmy Bramblett, State Conservationist with USDA Natural Resources
Conservation Service, the bigger, long-term cost may be the health and function of the soil itself –
resulting in lower yields, higher input costs, and reduced drought resiliency for Wisconsin farms.
Traditional tillage is very destructive to the soil structure and to the soil ecosystem. 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, surface crusting and compaction.
Because tillage destroys organic matter and soil structure, tillage actually reduces the soil’s
infiltration capacity. Besides infiltration capacity, soil structure allows for greater crop rooting
depths. Tillage can also bury the surface residue which helps to retain soil moisture. In short,
traditional tillage tends to limit the availability of water in the soil and that could prove very costly
during those long, summer dry spells where every drop of water counts.
Fortunately, more and more producers in Wisconsin are farming with reduced tillage systems
which build soil health. Producers are using management systems that include conservation
practices, like no-till or strip till, diverse crop rotations, planting cover crops and following nutrient
and pest management plans. These systems follow the four main soil health principles: disturb
less soil, increase plant diversity, grow living roots throughout the year and keep the soil covered
as much as possible.
The benefits of improved soil health extend far beyond the farm. Producers who improve the
health of the soil also increase its water-holding capacity and infiltration rate, which reduces
runoff that can cause flooding. Improved infiltration keeps nutrients and sediment from being
carried off into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams.
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.wi.nrcs.usda.gov/contact/directory.asp). Additional soil health
information is available at www.nrcs.usda.gov.
Ryan Galbreath, State Soil Health Specialist (715) 832-6547 ext. 104