If you ran a fluffing harrow over some of your ground last spring just before planting, you may be surprised to learn that the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) no longer considers those fields to be no-tilled. 

The NRCS definition of no-till for many years required at least 30% residue left on the soil surface.

But in 2006, NRCS quietly put through a new definition that rules that operating any type of full-width tillage regardless of depth no longer qualifies for use on no-tilled acres.

That means using these tools will disqualify you for no-till government program payments. And if you’re in a state where extra government program dollars are doled out for no-till, you won’t be happy when some of your acres are reclassified as mulch tillage, even when there is still more than 30% residue on the soil surface.

The sad part of this situation is that NRCS may be talking out of both sides of its mouths. It apparently is not relying on its new no-till definition when making in-the-field evaluations to determine tillage usage.

Attendees at last winter’s National No-Tillage Conference used fluffing harrows on 15% of no-tilled acres.

If you accept the U.S. Department of Agriculture figure that 63 million acres were no-tilled in 2004, this means 9.5 million of those acres would no longer qualify as no-till.

While many veteran no-tillers use fluffing harrows, the use is even more important to growers transitioning to no-till. These growers often rely on low-disturbance tools to encourage earthworms and microflora to effectively break down crop residue.

The units are also valuable in applying manure and handling corn stalks in high-yielding no-till corn.

On the other hand, trips made with vertical-tillage, rippers or strip-till units still qualify as no-till since they don’t represent full-width tillage passes. Besides rotary harrows, this criteria eliminates the use of Turbo-Till, AerWay, Gen-Till and other full-width, low-disturbance units in meeting the more stringent no-till qualifications.

The revised no-till criteria from NRCS also states that a Soil Tillage Intensity Rating (STIR) value shall include all field operations performed during the cropping interval between harvest of the previous crop and harvest or termination of the current crop. The STIR value for no-till shall be no greater than 30 and have a score of under 20 for no-till carbon sequestration.

The STIR system assigns a value for each trip made across a field and a lower cumulative score is better. Just using a combine, grain wagon and truck in a field earns a STIR value of 5 due to compaction concerns.

While STIR values for various tillage operations are based on Agricultural Research Service studies, apparently no work has been done on rating fluffing harrows, and only guesses were used to set the values.

In addition, there doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence to indicate that running this equipment less aggressively, especially under high-residue conditions, damages the soil.

The revised definition will also have an impact in other areas. For instance, the Chicago Climate Exchange will likely not allow no-till carbon sequestration contracts when full-width, low-disturbance units are used. Look for the National Corn Growers Association to ban these tools in the no-till/strip-till category of their yearly corn yield contest as well.

However, there’s still hope that many of these situations could be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

What do I think about banning the use of these full-width, low-disturbance tools that have helped growers overcome serious residue concerns and no-till more effectively for many years? It’s totally ridiculous.