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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

No Till, Less Toil, More Soil

Air Date: Week of

Mark Moran from member station WOI reports on a farming technique that helps prevent erosion and is also cost-effective. Many farmers in Iowa are switching to no-till farming, which helps reduce erosion and costs less in labor and equipment. Others are developing alternative techniques which they say are even more efficient.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

The deluge that's flooded the Midwest this summer has washed a lot of things downstream: homes, hopes . . . and vast amounts of precious topsoil. Even in dry years soil losses are running dangerously high. And the problem is aggravated by unusually heavy rains and floods. One of the chief culprits in erosion is actually one of the oldest and most basic of agricultural tools, the plow. By turning over the topsoil, plows make this vital layer vulnerable to the forces of wind and rain. But in Iowa and other parts of the country, many farmers are finding that they can reduce erosion and save work by abandoning the plow in favor of what's called "no-till" agriculture. Mark Moran of member station WOI reports.

(Sound of tractor)

MORAN: Just outside Carlisle, Iowa, Jim Goodhugh and his sons farm about 2,000 acres mostly of corn and soybeans.

J. GOODHUGH: Okay, this right here is a gravity-flow wagon we bought that's 250 bushel . . . (fade under)

MORAN: Inside a huge aluminum machine shed, huge pieces of red and green farm equipment spread their arms like tentacles through the dusty air - some of it old, some of it new. When spring rolls around and it's tlme to plant corn and soybeans, they don't drag out huge earth tillers and plows. On this farm, son Mark Goodhugh pulls this huge high-tech drill behind the tractor.

M. GOODHUGH: And it opens a little trench an inch wide or so and then it comes through and your seed drops in, and then you've got your seed firming wheel, and then you've got a little cast wheel behind that's your press wheel.

MORAN: The seed is planted at exactly the right depth, and unlike conventional ways of planting, it does virtually no damage to the topsoil. With conventional farming, the earth is turned over and exposed to wind and rain. It is the rain that does most of the damage by causing topsoil to erode, washing it into streams and rivers. No-till farming can help put an end to that kind of erosion, which soil conservationist Dale Faulkner says is a major problem on American farms.

FAULKNER: You only have so much topsoil to start with and you know some generations have almost lost all the topsoil they had to start with in the small amount of years, a hundred years or so, the land's been farmed in Iowa. Productivity's lost, takes more fertilizer and nutrients, inputs to produce a crop once you lose that topsoil.

MORAN: In fact, Faulkner says this method of farming can save up to 90 percent of the soil that could be lost using conventional methods of planting. Hundreds of farmers in Iowa have made the switch to no-till farming, in part because they are concerned about erosion, but also because the Federal government is concerned. Recent legislation mandated that farmers in highly erodable areas must come up with a soil conservation plan by next year if they want to be eligible for subsidies from Washington. But while farmers are being persuaded by the government to try no-till, the ones that are doing it are finding it more profitable than conventional farming. That's because it takes less time to plant crops this way. So in some cases they can farm more land. Jim Goodhugh says he saves money on machinery too, because he needs less of it to do the work.

J. GOODHUGH: We traded off quite a number of the machinery that we just wouldn't be using any more. But, ah, really, the plow is a thing of the past and your big discs are, too.

MORAN: In fact, the Goodhughs traded enough of their old equipment to pay for half of the new drill. For all the benefits of no-till farming, there is what some consider a substantial drawback. Rick Exner is an Iowa State University agronomist.

EXNER: If you're strictly no-till, you've put aside the other options for weed control, specifically mechanical options, cultivating the soil to remove weeds, and you're relying only on the chemical option.

MORAN: No-till farmers do have to use a lot more chemical herbicides to control weeds than conventional farmers do. Researchers are working on ways to reduce the amount. But some think even at current levels, no-till is worth the tradeoff. Rick Exner says while erosion from traditional farming claims about 15 tons of topsoil per acre per year, no-till can cut that to less than five tons.

(Sound of machine shed doors sliding open)

MORAN: Not every farmer in Iowa that is trying to save topsoil is using no-till agriculture to do it. Dick Thompson farms 300 acres near Boone, Iowa. He uses as system of rotating crops, alternating corn, soybeans, oats and hay. He lets some of his fields lie fallow, and his rotation leaves others unplowed for six years at a time. When he does plow, he uses a method called ridge-till farming. He plows the soil into high ridges, leaving trenches between them. He farms the ridges and the trenches catch the topsoil that would otherwise be washed away by rain.

THOMPSON: I know we're doing well, and the USDA at the National Tills Lab here in Ames is comparing our system with a neighbor's corn and bean in a convention system. And there's no question, on soil loss, infiltration, soil structure and mat that with the alternative system our soil health, our soil quality, is better.

MORAN: Thompson says he has reduced topsoil erosion to between one and four tons per acre per year - less than no-till - and significantly less than conventional farming. And he says that, by occasionally turning over the soil to make his ridges, he plows the weeds under and avoids the need for chemical herbicides. In fact, he says he hasn't used an herbicide in about 25 years. But there is a drawback to this kind of farming, too. It is a lot more work than no-till. It is a year-round job to tend the fields. Still, Thompson does not do this because the government, or anyone else, is telling him to - although he is part of an agricultural research project.

THOMPSON: There's nobody breathing down my neck to do these things, I'm doing these because I think there's economically and environmentally sound reasons for what we're doing. And that, it's through research and education approach rather than regulation that I would like to see things happen, but if they don't regulations will come.

MORAN: Probably nothing that people like Jim Goodhugh and Dick Thompson have done could prevent erosion that happened in a flood like the one that hit Iowa this year. But as the waters recede, researchers and farmers will be evaluating these kinds of farms to see how they stood up. Farmers are not primarily interested in trying to stop erosion under conditions like they faced this year. But their efforts to control erosion under more normal circumstances seem to be bearing fruit here in the fields of Iowa. For Living on Earth, this is Mark Moran in Des Moines.



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