By Janelle Atyeo for the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition
“Tillage in soil is like if a tornado went through the heart of Sioux Falls.” That’s how Roscoe, South Dakota, farmer Dennis Hoyle describes the practice of churning soil to prepare fields for planting. Houses may remain in the aftermath of a tornado, but some are uninhabitable, and some are completely destroyed.
“Whoever survives that is going to have to start over,” Hoyle said. Likewise, the soil is home to a busy community of microbes. Pulling a tiller through even once disrupts the natural balance of microbes that can be so beneficial for farming.
Many farmers broke out their tillage equipment this spring as they eagerly waited for fields to dry out, so they could plant between what felt like endless spring rains. Tillage is a standby method for drying soils quickly, but soil health experts say the practice does more harm than good. “Tillage is very hard on soil structure,” said Sara Bauder, Agronomy Field Specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.
The practice can add oxygen to top soil and increase soil temperature in the short term, but the damaging effects of tillage are long term. It actually contributes to the excess moisture problem farmers are battling this year.
Tillage decreases water infiltration by disturbing the root channels and worm holes that provide a path for water. “This generally results in more runoff and hard pan issues that cause moisture management problems in the long run,” Bauder said.
The urge to till can be strong in a wet year, however. Hoyle watched his neighbors work their low ground to prepare for planting this spring. “I understand the temptation, but soil health is a long-term deal,” he said. “It’s not about this year. It’s about the next generation.”