New research demonstrates the merits of incorporating old ideas

When I was growing up on a small mixed farm a half century ago summerfallow was the norm when it came to crop planning.

Farmers just naturally left one-third to one-half of their cropable land fallow each year.

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It was seen as a way to rest the land and as a way to better control weeds as they would be turned under by a cultivator two or three times from spring through fall.

In an era before farm chemicals were created for every problem it was a way to deal with the peskiest of weeds, and it did seem to give the follow-up crop a yield boost.

It was however not a system which did anything to prevent water and wind erosion.

A summerfallow field was easily blown around on hot, windy summer days, and heavy rains made small channels which carried topsoil to ditches, creeks and rivers.

So it was no surprise that farmers, when given the tools to eliminate summerfallow, they quickly adopted those tools.

The emergence of better chemical control of weeds, and equipment which could plant seeds through stubble and trash cover revolutionized farming. They brought more acres into annual production, and lessened the potential impact of wind and water erosion situations.

But now a new option seems to be emerging which crosses the old system and the new.

Strip-till is something I admit was unknown to me until very recently, but it is intriguing in the sense that it is a system which seems to draw on the strengths of both zero till and the earlier idea of summerfallow.

With strip-till narrow pathways where seeds are planted are worked with tillage equipment designed to create a seed bed free of weeds and trash. The area is black soil which in the days of summerfallow was seen as ideal as the black colour drew heat from the sun encouraging early seed emergence.

The issue of emergence has always been one of concern in terms of zero till as soil temperatures do not rise as quickly or as uniformly because of the trash cover.

Strip-till leaves the strips between crop rows alone. The stubble and trash cover between rows is left alone to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and reduce erosion from wind and water, which has always been the strengths of zero till systems.

But would such a system enhance yields, or reduce costs to make a switch viable?

According to a recent article at “that’s what University of Minnesota researcher Fabian Fernandez hoped to learn in 2007 when he embarked on a five-year study of strip-till versus no-till. The research was conducted on silty, clay loam soil and his findings are available in the recently published Agronomy Journal.”

Interestingly organic matter went up in the strip-till plots. “As you produce a slightly higher yield in strip-till, you begin gradually to produce more bio-mass, which is returned to the soil as organic matter,” said Fernandez in the article.

“Organic matter helps boost yield. So the more organic matter you incorporate into the strips, the more your yield increases.”

The strip-till plots had a slight yield benefit in the early years, which, over time, snowballed into significant organic matter numbers, continued the article.

The system does require specialized equipment, but so does zero till, that equipment developing as farmers showed a willingness to adopt it.

And there are some concerns, the pathways on hilly land can create automatic passageways for water run-off and erosion.

But the increase in biomass and yields do suggest that strip-till might have a future for farmers with additional research.

And so how we best farm continues to evolve as we gain knowledge through scientific research.