When I was just learning to drive a tractor as a young teenager on the farm, one of my first jobs was plowing up and down the field for hours upon hours. It was monotonous work to say the least, but it had to be done. Thank goodness for an old AM radio and fender-mounted speaker that offered music or a baseball game to keep me awake.
That was conventional tillage in the mid- to late-1970s in northeast Nebraska. "Conventional" or normal tillage systems might include plowing, disking twice and dragging up to three times, depending on the crop that was planned for that field. For row crops we might also rotary-hoe the field up to three times and cultivate twice.
All that tillage took time and fuel, and if the wind blew, it cost us soil, organic matter and precious moisture during some very dry years. As I started farming on my own in the mid-1980s, conventional tillage in our area might still include plowing, but was more likely to include tillage with a V-plow, spring-toothed harrow, chisel plow or field cultivator, and double-disking. Into the 1990s, normal tillage was reduced to a harrow or double-disking, and the rotary hoes and cultivators were slowly being retired.
Times are changing
Fast-forward to today, and I would say that a large percentage of producers have adopted no-till or minimum tillage systems across much of the state. Fuel costs have driven this move, along with a farm labor shortage, better herbicides and the wide adoption of biotech genetics. The other driving factor of course is education about soil health and practices we can implement to mitigate soil erosion.
It's unfortunate that over the past year, I've heard mainstream media sources consistently refer to farmers "plowing the soil." I haven't seen a plow other than those permanently retired in a few groves in years. They show up on farm sales occasionally and will struggle to bring scrap metal prices. They just aren't used, but some nonfarm media sources still have this vision of farmers plowing the soil.
This perpetration of myth causes the urban public and food consumers to have an outdated idea of how farmers grow crops. It makes me wonder what is considered conventional tillage these days. Any long-term research studies that have looked at tillage and soil loss over the past 50 years have been looking at what is a moving target.
What is considered a normal or conventional tillage system today was almost unheard of 50 years ago. Farmers are vastly better at improving soil health than they are getting credit for. In my lifetime, in addition to the increased size of farm implements and the development of biotechnology and precision agriculture, the reduction of tillage is probably one of the greatest changes in how we grow things. Producers that I know have widely adopted no-till and cover crop systems so rapidly that they are moving well beyond any basic understanding and coverage by the nonfarm media.
It continues to frustrate me that media sources only seem to cover farmers when something goes wrong, and largely ignore agriculture when the industry is working hard to do things right. Tillage — or no tillage as the case may be — is just one prime example of great conservation strides that are being made on the farm, and largely ignored by the general public.