Ryan Stockwell is a Wisconsin farmer who helps farmers solve problems on their farms with Carbon by Indigo.
I’ll admit, when I first heard of the idea of using no till in the land of the frozen tundra (that’s a lot of cold and a lot of water), my knee jerk reaction was, “That’s for out west where they don’t get enough rain.” But as I thought about what soil health focused farmers and leading experts were saying, it started to make sense.
A number of veteran farmers in my area of Wisconsin quickly laughed me off when I asked about their thoughts on the subject: “Just doesn’t work around here.” Wanting to understand why, I would ask: “Have you tried it?” This would receive a slightly awkward and frustrated, “Well, no.”
Then I spoke with Woody Van Arkle, a farmer in Ontario, Canada, where it’s also cold and wet. A veteran no-tiller, Woody explained a key advantage of no till in cold and wet regions is the improved soil structure, which leads to improved drainage. Intrigued, I asked agronomic expert Dan Towery, from Indiana. He confirmed that no-till soils not only have improved soil structure, but that structure dramatically improves infiltration of water deep into the soil, allowing the soil surface to more quickly return to an unsaturated condition. I further learned that saturated soils take six-times the solar energy to warm up than well-drained soils. It was starting to make sense. In 2010, I switched to no till as a strategy to improve soil warm up and field accessibility.
Eleven years later I can report that the experts were right. No till has improved my soil structure enough that I have better field access compared to my neighbors. In 2016, it made the difference between having enough soil structure to get into the fields to plant and having too much mud and not getting a crop planted. In fact, there have been some surprising advantages. I have gained significant field accessibility, which has given me longer windows for planting, in-season management, and harvest. This has sometimes made the difference between a crop and no crop, or a profit and no profit. My soybeans have shown consistent improvements in test weights with falling incidence of white mold, phytophora, and other diseases. My long-term no-till ground put into forages last year has consistently outproduced nearby conventionally tilled ground I recently purchased and transitioned to no till. The extra half a ton of dry matter per acre is worth another $65. That is extra money in the bank while reducing my variable costs.
While not a sea-change, no till is becoming more common. Despite this growing use, I still hear the old assumption come up: “No till doesn’t work in wet areas.” How did no till get defined by only one benefit? Sure, moisture conservation is great for arid regions, but why is no till so overwhelmingly associated with that one benefit while the others get such little attention?
And yet, agronomically excess precipitation (and more importantly our soils’ diminished ability to handle excess precipitation) causes one quarter of all reported crop losses (vs 50% for drought).
It appears that the moisture conservation benefits of no till in dry regions are quicker and more visibly obvious, while the soil structure and improved drainage benefits in wet regions take more time to develop and are literally deeper and less visible. Perhaps the pain of drought is more intense than the pain of delayed field accessibility and crops struggling to survive too much water. That pain translates into deeper, more lasting memories. When thinking of drought I can immediately recall 1993 and 2012, but when I try to recall excessively wet years my mind struggles to recall 2016, the year my area set the annual precipitation record, by October 15. The pain just isn’t the same. And yet, agronomically excess precipitation (and more importantly our soils’ diminished ability to handle excess precipitation) causes one quarter of all reported crop losses (vs 50% for drought). In the process, we end up downplaying the risk of not equipping our soils to handle excess precipitation. As growers we have to prepare for and address all of the major risks, not just one. No till does just that for me, especially in a wet climate. It is time it received the recognition it deserves.