No-till: An Answer for Climate Change?

No-till can mitigate extreme weather and keep soil in place

The ultra mild winter and equally strange spring has me thinking - again - about no-till. Specifically, why more American farmers still feel the need to till ground before planting.

Seeing dust clouds following planters these past few weeks would normally be a good thing. Hey, dodging frost for the sake of a fast start seems like a good bet, although we already have heard of folks who were dinged by frost and had to replant.

Even so, this week – despite a nice rain - the U.S. Drought Monitor reports we have 'abnormally dry' conditions in 6 of the 9 Midwestern states.

On a trip to Brazil earlier this spring, I learned that three-quarters of Brazil's crops are under no-till. Here, it's not even half. And, it has been a really fast adoption rate for Latin American farmers. According to Rolf Derpsch, Chilean author and leading no-till expert, between 1987 and 2007 no-till experienced a 72-fold increase in Latin America compared to just a 6.5- fold increase in the U.S.

Why? No-till fits well with tropical soil and weather conditions. No-till conserves water, which can be an issue in some parts of Brazil. And, it cools those hot tropical soils. In Brazil, bare soil at planting time can be as much as 20 degrees F hotter than soils protected by crop residue.

Do you believe the weird weather we're having is a sign of global climate change? I don't think anyone knows for sure. But no-till already prevents soil erosion; it would also help mitigate some extreme weather, such as hard rains in short bursts. In Illinois, records show the number of days with more than 1.5 inches of precipitation are on the increase.

The economic evidence is already overwhelming. All you need for 2,000 acres of no-till is a tractor, a 12-row planter, a 90-foot sprayer a blade, or dirt scraper (to repair ditches and rebuild waterways), a combine, grain transportation and mower. If you don't plant too wet and avoid compaction, you'll get comparable yields.

No-till is important when you have too much water, but it is much more important when you do not have enough water.

How many washed out fields and how much sheet erosion do we need to see to be convinced?

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