By Norman Wilson, Ph.D.
Reduced tillage systems (no-till, minimum-till, conservation-till, ridge-till, strip-till, etc..) are timely topics of discussion and debate wherever growers gather. The concept of reduced tillage is not new. In fact, many of today’s growers would fit into one of three categories. Those who have successfully implemented a reduced tillage system, those who have tried reduced tillage but have returned to conventional tillage, and those that have considered reduced tillage but have not initiated a program.
Why the renewed interest in reduced till? The short answer is that labor, fuel, and equipment costs are higher and most farm produce prices are down. In other words, growers are caught in a classic cost-price squeeze and are looking for ways to improve their bottom line. Are reduced till systems the answer to this dilemma? The simple answer is “probably not” if a grower looks at reduced till as the solution to all his problems. Reduced tillage is not without its challenges. Minimum-till can be more soil friendly, more efficient, and more profitable but these systems can also require more intensive management if they are to be successful.
A grower considering reduced till should consider the reasons for various tillage operations used on his farm. The three primary tillage objectives listed by growers are residue management, seedbed preparation, and weed control. Burying old crop residue gets it out of sight and out of mind. Large high power requirement tillage equipment can temporarily “soften” even compacted and neglected soil into some semblance of a seedbed and weed control from tillage is obvious. Growers contemplating no-till or minimum-till must consider alternative methods of accomplishing these objectives.
As a shrewd manager evaluates technology that will help him eliminate or reduce tillage, he may “discover” ViTech Industries. ViTech is a leading manufacturer of probiotic soil products designed to enhance natural soil micro biology. Soil micro biology is the “Key” to successful reduced tillage systems. Soil products from ViTech include ViBasic, ViClout, and Xcite. These products directly address the major concerns about less tillage. ViTech’s experience with turf grass demonstrates that residue (thatch in turf terms) on the soil surface can be managed without plowing, burning, or burying. ViTech ViBasic or ViClout along with Xcite provide the microbial stimulation to reduce old crop residue at the soil surface. Microbial breakdown of crop residue produces humus and improves soil flocculation and aeration. A biologically aerated soil will have better tilth and provide an improved seedbed for crop germination, emergence, and early vigor. From the standpoint of long term soil health, enhanced soil bioactivity is superior to plowing as a strategy to address compaction and associated soil problems. Since the objective is to manage and not eliminate soil surface residue, the remaining residue provides a natural mulch to discourage weeds, conserve moisture, and protect newly emerged crops. Weed pressure is further reduced because no-till or reduced tillage systems provide less opportunity to cover and germinate weed seed during the cropping season.
ViBasic and ViClout are sufficiently versatile to complement any reduced tillage system. A true no-till program will benefit from residue reduction on the soil surface and improved planting conditions. A biologically active soil will have better water infiltration and will hold more of that water in the soil profile. ViBasic or ViClout are equally well suited to a minimum-till system that maintains the existing row pattern but covers much of the old residue within a reshaped bed. A ViTech soil product incorporated into a reshaped bed with old residue in the fall will result in a firm (stale) seedbed next spring. A stale bed is the ideal seedbed for uniform emergence, good stands, and vigorous early root development. ViBasic or ViClout can be applied to residue (alone or tank mixed with herbicide or fertilizer) as the new beds are formed or can be applied in irrigation water after the beds are in place. Ridge-till or strip-till cropping systems can also benefit from ViBasic or ViClout application. If a ripper shank is run in the tilled strip, enhanced microbial activity can reduce clod formation and large air pockets in the seed zone. Planting depth is more accurate and better soil to seed contact is achieved. If shallow cultivation is used in the tilled strip, ViBasic or ViClout can reduce residue and improve soil tilth in the seed zone.
Any good reduced tillage system must address old crop residue management, maintain soil structure that will provide a good seedbed, and promote an environment where weeds, insects, and disease can be controlled. High soil microbial activity is the key to developing these soil characteristics and using ViTech soil products is the best way to ensure that your soil has the horsepower to do the job.