By John Stigge
Tillage destroys the microbial balance in the soil required to maximize carbon sequestration. Lower carbon sequestration is bad for the environment and bad for the crops. To make up for the lower carbon sequestration rates, tilled soil requires more fertilizers to help crops grow. More fertilizers encourage weed growth, which in turn requires herbicides to control.
Ground tillage is the most destructive practice done to the soil. With the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl still fresh in the country's mind, Edward Faulkner startled agriculture in 1943 with his book “Plowman’s Folly.” In it he opened by stating “There has not been one scientific reason advanced for the use of plowing.” He described it as a disastrous pillage of the soil.
Why then is soil tillage such an accepted cultural practice throughout the world?
Why then is soil tillage such an accepted cultural practice throughout the world? Thousands of years ago, tillage was used to increase the yield of whatever crop they were growing. They didn’t know why it worked, but it just did. Another benefit was tillage helped control weeds in their fields before seeding. These benefits occurred because tillage reduced the fungal community, inciting the bacterial community of the soil. This action released nitrogen in the soil for the crop’s benefits.
The problem with this tillage operation was that the benefits could not last. The microbial balance in the soil was destroyed, making for a bacterial dominant soil community. Without the microbial fungi, the soil lost its ability to transmit nutrients from the soil. This lead to discernible reductions in the nutrient values of the plants growing in this depleted soil.
Why do farmers still rely on tillage? Ignorance.
Another negative side effect of fungus loss is the inability to support the microbes that break down dead plant residue into its nutrient form. There is a discernible loss of soil organic matter that is compounded year after year. This is one reason ancient civilizations were concentrated along river valleys. They required flooding to replenish nutrients to their soil.
A further drawback is that under each tillage pass is a compaction zone where the bottom of the tillage tool penetrated. After several passes this is hardened into what is called a “plow pan” that stops plant roots from penetrating into deeper moisture layers.
Another documented problem with tillage is that it destroys the carbon sequestering glomalin that holds soil particles together. This leads to more soil erosion and reduced soil porosity leading to more flooding.
Since the ground is uncovered with each tillage operation, sunlight hits the soil particles destroying many of the microbes in the soil community by allowing temperature extremes to develop.
Currently about 20% of the farmland acres in the USA is NOT tilled
Currently about 20% of the farmland acres in the USA is NOT tilled. So why do farmers still rely on tillage? Basically, ignorance of what it does to the soil. They are also bombarded by sales reps and advertising promoting tillage equipment and products. Another reason is they don’t know how to farm without tillage or do not have the proper equipment for good seed placement using "no-till" methods.
Creating harmony in our environment starts with treating the soil with the respect it deserves. Not destroying its balance before every seeding. On our farm, this respect involves no-till, regenerative farming methods using cover crops and rotational grazing of cattle. We end up producing beef with a carbon negative footprint and higher crop yields than our neighbors because our soil carbon sequestration is so high. The long-term benefits of no-till go beyond our farm and it's soil. We are able to help the environment suck carbon emissions from the air and provide consumers with cleaner food. Our world would be a healthier place if all farmers followed our lead.