Trouble with Tillage
We set out to put in cover crops, in the Eastview Plots that meant pre-spray. In the Down to Earth plots that meant tillage because these plots are in transition to organic and have been in grass. It has not been straight forward (neither have the spayed cover crops, but more on that in our next blog)!
DTE Field One
This field was disced twice, let rest and then Pro-Tilled twice (a fast shallow disc). The result was less than stellar with a lot of grass escapes and a very soft and potentially vulnerable top layer. We learned that our heavy disc pass was too shallow. My aversion to tillage and lack of experience with a disc proved a lesson.
DTE Field Two
This field was disced once, Pro-tilled, rested and then cultivated. The result was better, in that the grass escapes were drastically reduced, but the field was also very vulnerable, soft and loose. It was also retained some clods of dead grass roots that I worried would make seeding uneven.
On this farm, there has been no tillage for over twenty years and I have to say it was controversial between us and not at all enjoyed. We felt in our bones the vulnerability of our soil. Sure enough, there was a high wind event days after seeding and we helplessly watched dust blow from our front window on land that has not had a soil blowing event since our first years of farming. We have also been under moisture stress since seeding the cover crop and there is not near enough cover to suit us. We console ourselves in the fact that in our long rotation, cattle integrated, organic grain model that any one piece of land will only see tillage one year in seven or one year in ten, depending where we land moving forward.
No-till farmers don’t like tillage because it is hard on soil, (we can somewhat repair that) but also because it uses up precious moisture. We are mostly moisture limited in the prairies and that is a real concern. You can see it on our farm. The Eastview Cover crops got better germination and growth, most likely because of retained moisture on a spring that has been very dry toward the end of seeding.
Prior to spring, we had a phone consultation with Gabe Brown, an innovation leader in low input, high diversity farming. He explained that he forgoes organic premiums for his grain because he
just has too much aversion to tillage to take out his grass that way in rotation. We understood what he was saying cognitively at that time, we now know that reality viscerally. He also noted that large scale organic grain purchasers have been visiting his farm because they had concerns that nutrient density is dropping the organic grain they are buying as time goes by, likely due to too much tillage.
Tillage was also a hot topic at the Alberta Organic Conference this spring in Lacombe. Two different researchers highlighted that excessive tillage in organic systems is reducing soil health. You could feel the sense of threat that organic growers felt in the room.
If your focus is soil health and ultimately high nutrient density in food, you are going to have to find ways to reduce tillage in organic systems. You can do things to amend the soil to reduce the effect. We are hoping to do no-chemical, no-till once we are out of the grass, but getting there seems difficult.
Tillage is an older art and a skill: Like so many things, technology – in this case spray- has made us forget skills that we had in the past. For me it was off to tillage school with my 89 year old father-in-law to find out how he used tillage to take out grass, but still protect the soil.
His recipe was to use a twisted spike on the land in the fall to start the process. Then disc early when moisture levels are high, cultivate to make sure you have removed the root and finally get a high competition crop in early to stay ahead of the weeds and provide soil stability in the hotter late spring. That would have been good to know last fall!
20 Acres of Cover Crop plots at Eastview Farm plots. 52 acres of Cover Crop at Down to Earth Farm project. East view plots will test cover crop as input reducing and biology improving tools in conventional program. Down to Earth project is testing a Long rotation Cattle and Organic grain integration model, with cover crop this year in preparation for no-chemical organic no-till in 2018.