An opinion on tillage

Some people seem to have it in their head that tillage is just bad. They are morally opposed to tillage. “Thou shalt not till” is their 11th commandment. This sort of extremism is of the same type that leads people to become vegans, or to oppose the eating of gluten or dairy foods. If much of a society were to act this way, there would be intractable problems. And frankly, only an extremely affluent society could shoulder such status displays as widespread rejection of grain eating.

I will grant that tillage is often done poorly, done too often, done when it doesn’t need to be, and it does contribute to real problems, erosion chief among them. But this doesn’t mean that we must never till, at least in my opinion. Tillage will always cause some amount of damage, or disturbance as I’d like to put it, certainly, but often it is the best way to achieve a certain worthwhile outcome. Sometimes, I would say, it’s better to till appropriately and minimally than to not till at all, because the workarounds have their problems. I have tried no-till experiments and most of them have been failures with the notable exception of frost seeding. Basically the more adapted a given plant is to human care, the more it is going to need tillage, because humans have historically been able to favor plants through tillage. We till the weeds to death, and then plant our favored plants in the “broken” soil.

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This is a LandPride contra-rotating rototiller. Instead of pushing the tractor, it pulls it, so it is important to use such tillers with an adequate tractor. They were well worth their considerable cost, I think, as they are more effective than a whole array of older tillage implements. A good rototiller and subsoiler may be all you need.

Just so you understand, I am of the opinion that perhaps 80-90% of the tillage conducted on an annual basis is unnecessary and most farmers should strive to develop ways to avoid tillage. The best way to avoid tillage, in my opinion, is not to develop new and expensive machines that can plant annual crops without seedbed prep, which is what most of the no-till movement is focused on, rather, I think it is best to simply to favor perennial plants in food production systems which may need tillage when they are planted, but then not thereafter, at least for decades or more. Instead of growing primarily annual plants, which generally benefit from tillage, to feed our livestock, we should try to feed them mainly with perennial plants—pastures, long term hayfields, and possibly trees. The tiny amount of grain that goes directly to human consumption could continue, and we could still easily reduce the amount of tillage 80% I think, since about 90% of grain crops go to feed livestock, not people. We could probably knock another 10% of the total number of tilled acres if we ate more nuts, which come from perennials, too.

The reasons not to till include that it disturbs the fairly delicate balance of the ecosystem in the soil, which is usually quite beneficent. Tillage kills worms, it kills mycorrhizal fungi, it can invert soil layers, it can release soluble nitrate to the atmosphere, which is then lost. Now, here are some of the good things about tillage: it incorporates plant residues and amendments/fertilizers into the soil, it can kill undesirable vegetation without recourse to herbicide, and many seeds greatly prefer a nicely tilled seedbed.

On my minimal tillage farm, I basically till to establish long-term hayfields, pastures, and to rotate my garden. This is one reason why I favor sod-formers over bunchgrasses. Generally sod-forming grasses, and White Clover, can be planted once and will last for decades. I still make use of bunchgrasses of course, and frankly, when you combine a sod-former (Bluegrass) with a bunch-grass (Ryegrass) in a pasture, it will act like a sod-former since the Bluegrass will creep all over the place and fill in the spaces when the Ryegrass dies off. This is why it is generally necessary to continuously re-seed with Ryegrass. The only tall sod-former grasses are Bromegrass and Reed Canarygrass. They are both somewhat difficult to establish, so I think tillage is ideal with them, but at least you wont have to re-establish it every few years like one would with Timothy or Orchardgrass. Alfalfa and Red Clover need to be re-seeded periodically, too. Alfalfa exhibits a very annoying trait of auto-toxicity—Alfalfa seeds do not germinate well around existing Alfalfa plants, so you must rotate your Alfalfa hayfield. And for that matter, all the pests that afflict Alfalfa would practically mandate rotation anyway. And this is fine. Alfalfa fits this role well. Red Clover does not have any auto-toxicity that I know of, and furthermore, if you let it go to seed in the summer, it re-seeds itself fairly well. Red Clover doesn’t suffer from too many pests, but it only lives 2-4 years or so. The only problem with this is that where I live there are feral Red Clover plants all around, and since it is pollinated by Bumblebees (not Honeybees usually), the seeds will generally be inferior compared to their parent in your hayfield. Birdsfoot Trefoil is quite good at reseeding itself because of its indeterminate growth habit, which means in sets seed continuously all summer long, and because feral Birdsfoot trefoil is rare, your seeds will be pretty true to the type you bought.

My pastures are White Clover, Perennial Ryegrass, Kentucky Bluegrass, Chicory, and Plantain in that order. The Ryegrass, Chicory, and Plantain need to be re-seeded if I want them to stay. The White Clover and Bluegrass are there for the long haul and I could probably let it just let them dominate if I wanted to, but I feel like the little bit of seed cost is worth it to achieve some more diversity. All of the plants I re-seed do ok as far as frost seeding goes.

My primary hayfield is Reed Canarygrass with some Birdsfoot Trefoil and a little Red Clover which I plan to let wither out. RCG is a sod-former, and generally you plant it once in a lifetime, and BFT re-seeds itself pretty well, as mentioned earlier. It’s more of a problem keeping RCG where you want it and not letting it spread, actually, but all things considered the modern low-alkaloid RCG varieties are very impressive hay plants. RCG is just as nutritious and high yielding as Orchardgrass and Timothy, and it is both more drought and flood resistant. My RCG-BFT hayfield is planted in a place that is somewhat poorly drained, and I didn’t feel like tiling it, mainly because I have nowhere convenient to send the water without worsening some of my neighbors’ drainage issues. Also, the considerable drought tolerance of the RCG makes it a good “emergency pasture” if the summer is dry. Since I keep on hand a year’s worth of hay (and you should, too), I would just not make hay that drought year and let them have at the RCG-BFT. It’s rare to have two drought years in a row.

All of this was established with some tillage, mainly because I didn’t want to use herbicide. I started the RCG-BFT hayfield with roto-tilling. I think 3-pt mounted roto-tillers, if used well, are very useful tillage implements. Of course, they need to be used carefully and sparingly. In my case, it was tilling very shallowly, just one or two inches deep, in order to injure and kill back various weed grasses and white clover growing in this wet-ish area. We had an unusually dry February, and it became very warm as well, so I was able to get in there when the soil was dry enough to rototill, and didn’t have to freeze either. After the roto-till, I broadcast in the RCG-BFT and a little bit of Red Clover and then culti-packed it. So only one round of light tillage ever occurred, and it occurred in February, when there is little worry about losing nitrogen to the air or killing a worms. At least half the erosion threat for the year had passed, too. March can bring pounding rains, but my hope is that the fibrous residue of the weeds I tilled will at least help stop some of that. And it is a very flat, low area where there is little place for the erosion to go anyway. This acre will hopefully not need tillage in a very long time.

The way the pastures were started was by my neighbor tilling thoroughly with a disc type harrow and planting first soybeans and then Winter wheat. In early spring I frost seeded right over his Winter Wheat (he knew of my plan, of course). He took off the wheat as balage (like hay, except wrapped in plastic bag and fermented into silage) in May when it was in the dough stage of seed maturity. The White Clover, Ryegrass, and Bluegrass were down there establishing, but very pathetic and barely noticeable. By July much of the wheat had grown back a little bit, and I mowed it, and thought the whole thing was a total failure. I was about to have my neighbor tear it all up again and he told me to wait. That August was unusually wet, and by the end of it, the White Clover looked like it was going to take over the place. The ryegrass was coming along behind it. The following spring, the white clover and ryegrass were both laid low by the winter, but the Bluegrass (which is more cold hardy) was coming on strong. A brief overseeding of some more Ryegrass and Chicory and Plantain rounded it out. And only one round of tillage was used: the initial round to till in the corn stubble to make way for the beans. The Wheat was drilled into the bean stubble (which is very wimpy) with a 1980s era seed drill. Everything else was done with simply broadcasting, frost action, the sun, and the rain. I hope to never till those 5 acres again.

Now the place where I use tillage regularly is in what I call my garden rotation. I have a very large “garden” area of approximately 1.5 acres. Almost every year at least half of it is a Red Clover hayfield, which I use mostly as mulch for vegetables and not for hay, actually. It is always established the same way. I roto-till my garden at the end of the season to basically incorporate any residues into the ground and kill as many pests as I can. I then broadcast Rye into it and cultipack. This Rye overwinters and I frost seed Red clover into it in late winter. Sometimes I let my animals graze the rye. Then I mow it when it reaches the flowering stage and either just let it to break down or rake it up and use it as low-grade hay. The Red Clover then comes on that summer and I leave it for 1-3 years. I terminate the RC hayfield in the spring with a rotary plow and plant my garden in the thoroughly enriched soil. And so my garden and hayfields move around. I plant things like Kale and Flax and Corn and Oats in my “garden,” of which I eat very little. I feed most of this to animals. I favor these plants because they are very easy to process into useable animal or people food. Corn is the easiest grain to harvest by hand. Oats make good hay. Flax can me mowed, raked, and stacked up like hay and fed straight to chickens. They peck it apart and devour every last flax seed it seems (I suspect sunflowers would work this way, too). Kale I cut wet and feed by the wheel barrowful to my cattle directly, or I eat it! It keeps growing back, so it’s useable through its long harvest window from about September through December when it freezes to death. It makes an excellent, mellow, patch of soil to start an oat or flax field in in the spring, too.

So, to me, tillage isn’t something that should never be done, and it isn’t something that should always be done. It is certainly best to do it as little as practically possible, and if you do it, do it well–mainly–at the right moisture level and the right time of year. One of my goals is to someday abandon tilling my garden, and move towards a Rye-Vetch no-till system with a roller-crimper, but that day has not come. I suspect that every case of successful no-tillage practice is because the people involved were working in ideal soil, not heavy clay like I am. That or they had a superabundance of compostable material they were getting for cheap, something I think exists mostly in people’s imaginations these days.

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