Although spring tilling of the soil is traditional, soil scientists say the practice can often do more harm than good.
Spring tillage is a tradition that is steeped deeply into American agriculture. But more and more farmers are realizing that this iconic tradition is costing them - in more ways than one.
Tillage, which was once considered necessary in order to prepare a proper seed bed for planting, comes at a high price in terms of increasing diesel prices and labor costs.
But according to Niels Hansen, a soil health specialist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Salt Lake City, the bigger, long-term cost may come at the expense of the health and function of the soil itself - resulting in lower yields, higher input costs and reduced drought resiliency for Utah farms.
"Tillage is incredibly destructive to the soil structure and to the soil ecosystem," Hansen said. "In healthy soil you have 50 percent air and water - which is made possible by the pore space in the soil - and 50 percent mineral and organic matter. But tillage collapses and destroys that structure, making the soil vulnerable to erosion and compaction," he said.
The possibility of another dry year should also have producers rethinking their use of tillage, Hansen said. "Because it destroys organic matter and soil structure, tillage actually reduces the soil's infiltration capacity," he said.
"Additionally, studies have shown that each tillage pass can release a half an inch of soil moisture from each acre. In short, tillage tends to limit the availability of water in the soil," Hansen said. "And that could prove very costly during those long, summer dry spells."
Fortunately, more and more irrigated and dry land producers in Utah are farming with systems to build soil health, Hansen said. "Using a suite of conservation practices, like no-till farming and diverse cover crops," he said, "they're keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and they're keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round."
And according to Hansen, the benefits of improved soil health extend beyond the farm. "Producers who improve the health of their soil are also increasing its water-holding capacity, which reduces runoff that can cause flooding. Improved infiltration keeps nutrients and sediment from being carried off-site into nearby lakes, rivers, and streams," he said.
Producers interested in learning more about the basics and benefits of soil health, or in receiving technical and financial assistance to implement a soil health management system, should contact their local NRCS office.
The Utah NRCS YouTube site has two short videos about no-till farming (one on dry land and another on irrigated land) and can be seen at the YouTube link on the NRCS Web site at www.ut.nrcs.usda.gov. Additional soil health information is available on the "unlock the secrets of the soil" link at the national NRCS Web site at www.nrcs.usda.gov.