Soil management 101

Has interest in no-till planting peaked? I ask that question because I have seen a lot of tillage being done this fall. I see farmers who were huge proponents of no-till for 10 years or more now doing tillage with chisel plows or elaborate cultivators. I saw tillage demonstrations at the Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock, Ont. Many farm folk showed keen interest in the eight cultivators doing their thing. Tillage, tillage, tillage!

Farm publications feature numerous colourful ads about superior tillage machines. The ads endorse tillage to bury trash and make a good level seedbed for the seeds. Here is one that says it all: “If you’re serious about yield, you’re serious about the quality of your seedbed because that’s where yield potential begins. One only gets so much done in a single pass . . . .”

In conventional tillage, the ground is turned over after harvest with a mouldboard plow to a depth of six to eight inches. In the last few years, plowing down trash has made a comeback. In the spring, when the ground is dry, it is disked at least twice more to prepare the seedbed before planting takes place. In no-till, planting is done right through the residues of previous plantings with a device called a coulter that cuts a narrow slot followed by equipment on the same machine that places the seeds and closes the slot.

Why not till?
No-till is a type of soil conservation that prepares the land for farming without mechanically disturbing the soil. Let’s say the previous year’s crop was grain corn where only the cob was harvested and the stalks and leaves, referred to as crop residue or trash, is left on the ground. The stalks standing overwinter become brittle and will break up into small pieces when a cultivator or a no-till planter goes through.

To overcome the lost advantages of herbicide and pesticide that tillage brings, herbicides are applied to the land before and after no-till planting. There usually is an increase in weed growth with no-till and farmers have to increase their application of herbicide on the crops. That’s partly why farmers are big on a little fall and spring tillage – one pass.

Tillage is a great way to control weeds. When a farmer plows, soil is overturned. The benefit of this soil turnover is a disruption of the lifecycle of any pre-existing weeds and pests. The major argument, which is often advanced by the organic farm movement, against no-till farming is that it increases the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides.

However, farm organizations such as the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) promote soil health by recommending reducing or eliminating tillage; they advocate no-till farming.

Sponsored tours
In September I went on a bus tour sponsored by the Eastern Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Associations to see the Kaiser Lake Farms in the Bay of Quinte peninsula near Napanee. The farm has 1,200 acres of crop land in one huge block with a gravel road going around the perimeter and roads through the middle. Producing eggs, feed and cash-crops, the farm is a showcase of innovative techniques such as crop rotations and no-till soil management. The Kaisers (father and son) were among the first in the province to stop tilling, which they did 16 years ago. They have one machine that has been modified and it plants their corn, soybeans and wheat.  

There was no cost for the big coach bus trip. The noon pizza lunch and a stop at a farm brewery nearby, where we sampled cold glasses of beer, were all paid for by sponsors. There were pickup points along the way to Kingston where farm folks could get on the bus. How many people do you think were on the bus for this outing to see and learn more about the benefits of no-till? Twenty-six! That’s including the organizers. Would more people have gone on a bus tour that featured tillage demonstrations? Probably! Maybe some CFFO members would have come along.  


  • Meindert VanderGalien

    Meindert was born in The Netherlands in 1949. The family immigrated to Canada (The Ottawa Valley) in 1953. He’s a life-long cattle farmer, enjoys traveling, reading, writing, gardening, bush work in the winter cutting firewood and country life. He’s been a columnist since 1987 writing for many newspapers and is currently the bulletin editor at Hebron CRC in Renfrew, where he is a faithful member.

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