Recreational Tillage No Fun for Soils
The practice is known as "recreational tillage." Some farmers are inclined to do it if they have some time on their hands after an early harvest, such as during the last two fall seasons.
"It may be the 20th of October, and a farmer says, 'I've got my corn and soybeans harvested, and by golly, I'm going to go out there and do some tillage,'" says Ohio State agricultural engineer Randall Reeder.
However, the benefits of recreational tillage in the fall are questionable, Reeder says. The worst kind is hard-core moldboard plowing, which makes a bare, smooth surface and sets up the field for wind and water erosion during the vulnerable winter months.
Recreational tillage gives neighbors the impression the farmer is a hard at work, and it quiets any peer scoldings at the coffee shop, Reeder says. "It can be a form of peer pressure," he says.
Another reason to do this tillage is that some farmers aren't satisfied with yields from reduced tillage, notably no-till. Some farmers are turning away from conservation tillage because corn gets a slow start in soils left cold and wet from a rainy spring.
"Instead of doing recreational tillage in a field, many of these farmers would be better off economically and environmentally if they stayed in their farm office to read a book on conservation tillage or else went out fishing," Reeder says. "If you have to go out and drive a tractor, it'd be better not to attach anything behind it."
Farmers unhappy with no-till may be overlooking some of its benefits, Reeder says. "You may lose 2 percent of your yield, yet because your costs of production are a lot less with no-till, your net profit margin is larger," he says. "In other words, you might lose $10 per acre in yield, but you save $20 per acre in reduced costs."
No-till's benefits aren't always evident right away. In addition to fighting erosion, no-till increases organic matter, and counteracts soil losses. USDA research at Coshocton, Ohio, revealed that a field that had not been tilled in 30 years had a changed, "better" soil type, Reeder says.
A worst-case result of fall, recreational tillage would be a severe rain storm or a high-wind event that heavily eroded soils before spring. About half of all soil erosion may be caused by five or six major weather events over a 30-year period, Reeder says. "Erosion does not move the same amount of soil every year."
"Really what the farmer is doing when he is doing tillage is that he's playing with the odds that an erosion event isn't going to occur," Reeder says. "Erosion isn't something that occurs with the same amount of soil loss every year."
Another negative effect of recreational tillage is severe soil compaction during a rain-delayed planting season or harvest when farmers push heavy equipment through soggy soils. "With no-till, you'd be able to drive across a firm surface and get your field work done," Reeder says. "Any compaction will be less severe."
Reeder says crop residues left on the soil surface are only a problem between planting and seed emergence, which is brief. Aggressive tillage is a lot of work for a small benefit that might otherwise be achieved with row-cleaners on the planter, he says.
Also, crop residues left on the field surface conserve soil moisture for a much longer part of the growing season.
"I suggest farmers take advantage of educational programs whether at the county, state or national level, to learn about conservation tillage systems," Reeder says. "It's a much better use of their time than recreational tillage."