We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat”. Many of us spend the first part of our year attempting to fulfill New Year’s resolutions to “eat better”. Science has told us that the better we eat, the better we’ll feel and the better we’ll perform. And exactly the same science applies to farmers’ fields! Their fields and their crops benefit from careful feeding just like their bodies do.
Feeding the soil has taken on a new meaning since the advent of industrial agriculture. From the early 20th century on, the approach for most farmers was to simply add the things they needed – nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium – because these things were available. Industrial mining and science made it possible for farmers to augment their soils with their missing nutrients, by simply buying the additives on the open market.
However, few farmers stopped to think exactly WHY it was their fields needed these nutrients in the first place. It wasn’t until the 1940s, after the Dust Bowl years wreaked havoc on the central plains of the US, that farmers began to question the use of highly disruptive moldboard plows and connected their use to the lack of nutrients they were seeing in their soil. The 1970s brought conservation and strategic tillage management systems into the mainstream, and progressive farmers haven’t looked back, capitalizing on the benefits of feeding their fields to feed the world.
Increased Humus Levels
Reduced tillage leads to a direct increase in soil humus levels because it encourages the decay of organic matter and the mineralization of plant residues.
Reducing tillage altogether, however, does not meet this issue. It’s the tillage action which brings about the residue incorporation necessary to put the nutrients down into the soil.
The Solution: Strategic Tillage (you can read more about strategic tillage here). More humus means more retention of nutrients, a better overall soil profile, and less need for additive nutrients.
Humus levels also align to higher concentrations of soil organic carbon (SOC). Higher levels of SOC translate to increase the level of activity and diversity of beneficial soil microbes. At the same time, they promote fertility, improved overall soil profile, and water-holding capacity.
Getting benefits of residue incorporation into your soil is one of the places where multi-function implements like the K-Line Ag Speedtiller shine. Surface residues decay faster when they’re smaller. The disking and trash-cutting components of the Speedtiller turn even the toughest corn stalk residues into smaller, more easily-compostable pieces. Faster decay means faster mineralization of key nutrients, and faster absorption by the next season’s crop. Some estimates put the rate of mineralization by crop residues at 1/4 to 1/5 of the plant’s demand during peak growth, so faster mineralization means better early growth in new crops.
Quality Seedbed Preparation
Prepping seedbeds can be difficult in high residue soils. Residues, by their nature, leave soil surfaces rough with stalks, root balls, and other detritus. However, good germination depends on the ability of the seed to remain in contact with moist, nutritive soil and is usually accomplished best in smoother soil.
Striking the balance between retaining valuable residues from a previous crop and meeting the seedbed needs of a new crop is another situation where the Speedtiller excels. It allows farmers to meet the needs of both the soil and the incoming crop with its multi-functional approach. The Speedtiller processes residues into small, easily integrated pieces. It then leaves a smooth, prepped seedbed surface and a high-residue, nutrient-rich humus to drive seed germination and growth.
Reduced Chemical Resistance
Soils with high residual organic matter from previous crops can create a barrier to new weed seed germination. Similarly, light tillage and residue incorporation with an implement like the K-Line Ag Speedtiller can disrupt weed seed banks, delaying or eliminating germination or stunting weed growth. In this application, tillage can function as a mechanical means of weed control. It minimizes the need for chemical controls and thus reduces the possibility of chemical resistance in local weed populations.
We as people realize that eating better improves our human performance. We as farm producers and managers need to recognize the correlation between this concept and the health and performance of our fields, soils and crops.
 Environmental Evidence | How Does Tillage Intensity Affect Soil Organic Carbon? A Systematic Review Protocol