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What I've Learned From No-Tilling: Focus on No-Till, Soil Health Puts Farm Problems Out to Pasture

Veteran no-tiller Terry Ness has found a focus on soil health and diverse rotations can mean reduced inputs and security in the face of weather, insects, weeds and disease.

My soils were on the verge of giving out on me when I finally made the switch to no-till. I’m a first-generation farmer. The acres I took on had all been farmed for probably 60 years and were severely degraded from intensive tillage. I didn’t know any different when I started, so I copied the system used by those who farmed before me and kept pushing my soils ever closer to their breaking point. Those days are long behind me now and my soils have made a tremendous comeback.

I was 21 when I started farming in 1976. Normal practices in the area were to leave ½-to-⅓ of your acres in summer fallow each year. Soil organic matter (SOM) was around 1.5% on average. For 14 years, I followed the crowd doing tillage and summer fallow. It just didn’t feel right, though. I did try to minimize tillage right from the start as opposed to the intensively tilled operations that surrounded me. I couldn’t tell you why, but I was never comfortable with all the tillage. It didn’t feel right. I knew there had to be a better way.

The whole idea of summer fallow was that it would conserve moisture, but observation told me it didn’t get the job done. The only thing tillage was doing was breaking down more SOM to generate a nitrogen (N) release. That works for quite a while, but when you get down to 1% SOM it stops working and we were fast approaching…

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Martha Mintz

Contributing Editor

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