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Can every soil be no-tilled?

Abbey Wick stresses avoiding labels and looking for systems-based approaches.

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Side by side at harvest of a field where no till and cover crops are being used, left, and where tillage is being used, right for management. (Abbey Wick/Special to Agweek)
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I had a conversation about soil health in an unlikely place … where I wasn’t expecting to be saying the words “cover crop” or “no-till” or “grazing.”

The conversation took place with someone who is not involved with agriculture for their career now, although they did grow up on a dairy farm and have a brother-in-law who farms and uses soil health practices. It was the first time I had met this individual and about mid-way through the conversation, she asked, “Do you think that every soil can be no-tilled?”

This is a really good question — it’s simple, it’s honest and it demands an answer. I’m sharing my thoughts with you.

Yes, I DO think that every soil can be farmed using no-till practices. However, like any practice utilized on a farm, it takes careful consideration as to how the identified primary goal is accomplished by a specific practice or set of practices and how they will be implemented as a system. Each practice has to fit with a set of existing and learned skills, underlying comfort level, available workforce, current or adjusted crop rotation, fertility program, available equipment or modifications needed, support network, learning opportunities available and many other things. But whether or not no-till will work is NOT determined by soil type or latitude. No-till as a practice depends on the system it is going to be a part of.

If your goal is to become a no-tiller or if you aren’t too excited about the idea of no-till, I’ll hopefully provide some useful thoughts on this for consideration.

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First, I don’t care for the label “no-tiller” because it implies a system, when really it is a practice. I’m not one for labels and let’s avoid them entirely — they are too constraining. Let’s focus on a systems-based approach which gives more flexibility to use multiple tools based on condition. Then we can build a customized system based on multiple soil health practices, not just one.

Next, remember that any practice that becomes habit or routine can be dangerous. Any time we use practices, including no-till, without considering the conditions or timing, we can get stuck in a bad spot. For example, someone asked me about using “seasonal tillage.” That term has a sense of being temporary or based on weather, but it could also become habit and keep a system from advancing. Conditions change, rotations change, workforces change, and we need to stay flexible in our system to allow for those changes to occur while keeping the original goal in mind. Allow that original goal to be “fluid”, but don’t let it change drastically.

Apply some advice I heard from a farmer: “Change your mindset from, 'I’m going to give this a try,' to 'I’m going to make this work.'" Sure, I can try to do something and I will likely quit if it’s not working more so than if I set my mind to making it work.

The first three thoughts about changing management are focused on mental preparation. These are the most important in the process — do not move on until you are mentally ready. The next steps involve learning and gaining confidence. That confidence can come from scientific data, other farmers experiences or support of others. Then put your ideas into practice on a quarter or small acreage before going whole-farm. Take your time.

With all the new farmers I’ve been meeting at the Café Talks and other programs this winter, I thought answering a simple, honest question, like “do you think every soil can be no-tilled?” would be helpful.

Abbey Wick is an Extension soil health specialist at North Dakota State University.

Related Topics: SOIL HEALTHCROPS
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