A recent report from the Conservation Technology Information Center says there's more conservation tillage in agriculture than ever before.
According to the report, 41% of all cropland is now under a conservation tillage system. What's more, 23% of all cropland is being no-tilled, up from 17.5% in 2000.
But even as overall stewardship seems to be soaring, there are disturbing signs that some farmers are backsliding on conservation tillage.
Observers in some areas say there is a noticeable comeback for both moldboard plowing and for fall tillage of soybean stubble.
It may not be a general trend, but it's causing worry for the conservation conscious where these trends are taking place.
Let's look at four random counties across the Corn Belt.
“Our Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Directors is concerned about an increase in fall tillage,” reports Paul Youngstrum, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist in LaSalle County, IL.
“There is more soybean stubble being worked in the fall than five years ago,” Youngstrum notes. “There also seemed to be an increase in plowed cornstalk ground last fall.”
Youngstrum says part of the increased fall tillage may be due to heightened concern about insects and diseases. Part is probably to allow for earlier corn planting in the spring and part is because of a slight trend to more corn after corn.
Although some of the soybean stubble in Humboldt County, IA, is fall tilled, the acreage has not been increasing, says NRCS district conservationist Allison Orr. In fact, there might be a slight increase in soybean stubble that is left unworked over winter.
“Much of the fall tillage is with a field cultivator,” says Orr. “We are not seeing an increase in moldboard plowing. But where the ground is worked in the fall, even with lesser tillage, there is more wind erosion after a rain if a crust forms.”
Most Humboldt County farmers are maintaining 30% residue after planting with both corn and soybeans, Orr reports.
In Clinton County, IN, there have been a few isolated moldboard plows back in action the past two seasons, but there's not been a pronounced trend to more aggressive tillage, notes NRCS district conservationist Ben Lambeck.
“Overall, I've seen a slow but sure rise in no-till and strip-till corn,” Lambeck says. “Still, the dominant tillage ahead of corn is a disk chisel or similar combination tool in the fall — on both corn after corn and on soybean stubble — followed by a field cultivator in the spring.”
The ground in Putnam County, OH, is tabletop flat and poorly drained. To manage that situation, most farmers chisel plow soybean stubble in the fall ahead of corn, reports NRCS district conservationist Terry Schroeder. Some farmers also level the ground in the fall, after tillage, to remove any low spots, since the low areas are prone to ponding. “However, we've seen no increase in moldboard plowing,” Schroeder says.
About 70% of the soybeans in Putnam County are no-tilled. There's also a substantial amount of no-till wheat.
“Although we're so flat that we don't have much water erosion, we could use more cover crops to hold down wind erosion after fall tillage and land leveling,” Schroeder points out.