Growers on rolling landscapes know what erosion looks like. Heavy rains run down the hills, taking the topsoil with it and leaving rills and gullies in its path. It’s one of the top reasons growers mention when I ask why they switched to no-till — to hold the soil in place.
But if you’ve ever argued with another grower who believes he doesn’t have to worry about erosion — and therefore can continue tilling — because he’s on flat land, Barry Fisher would beg to differ.
At the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference held earlier this month in Ada, Ohio, Barry Fisher explained that even if soil doesn’t leave the farm, it’s still eroding.
The Central Region Leader for the National Soil Health Division of the NRCS says that tillage breaks down soil aggregates, and when an intense rainfall event occurs, it causes those soil particles to detach. But instead of running off the field like it would on a hill, it goes straight down in the soil profile.
“I’m going to suggest you do have an erosion problem, it’s just that the soil didn’t leave the farm,” he says.
Fisher says those small particles break apart, go straight down and fill even the smallest pore spaces.
“A lot of times we call that compaction, but the reality is it’s vertical erosion,” he says. “Then when the next rain comes, what happens? There’s no way you’re going to get it in the ground.”
To break that crust, growers sometimes turn to tillage. And the cycle continues.
“Tillage begets tillage,” Fisher says.
The problem goes beyond soil crusting and compaction. Fisher reminded the audience that in the U.S., we haven’t been farming intensively that long. If we think of parts of the world where civilizations have been farming for centuries, we get a glimpse of our future, if tillage is the path we continue down.
“We think that’ll never happen to us,” Fisher says. “It’s already happened to us a couple times. We were knocking on the door in the 1930s, we were knocking on the door again in the early ’80s. This is always knocking at our door.”
A good reminder that no-till has its benefits for everyone, not just the growers with rolling land.