There is significant debate about soil management and water quality. Concerns about erosion, topsoil loss and water retention are key elements of the discussion. And water quality concerns have been high on the list lately as algal blooms continue to increase in our area. Perhaps a better farming system is needed to address these issues.
However, all soils are not created equal, and some lend themselves better to drainage than others. Lenawee County lies on lake plains and in depression areas on moraines, flood plains, and glacial drainage routes. These are soils formed in lake deposits and are considered poor to very poor soils for drainage.
A soil drainage index determines which plants perform best and which tillage techniques are most desirable to increase growth performance. Farming is no longer a guessing game where we apply pesticides and fertilizers to specific soils without the precision of amount, timing and location of application in order to achieve maximum performance with the least environmental impact.
As a result, Strip Till is gaining recognition among farmers in the area. What exactly is Strip Till and how can it help with erosion, soil quality and unwanted water runoff into key waterways?
Wikipedia describes Strip Till “as a conservation system that uses minimal tillage. It combines the soil drying and warming benefits of conventional tillage with the soil protection benefits of no-till by only disturbing the part of the soil intended to contain the seed row.”
With the right equipment, which is not traditional farming implements, the farmer can plant the seed directly into the soil, giving the rows, in whom the seed lies benefits most is planted. This differs from using fertilizers, which are spread out in equal amounts over a field and may not require as much in other sections of the same field. It also reduces emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) by 40-70%, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than CO2. Nitrous oxide stays in the atmosphere for about 120 years, according to the Soil Science Society of America Journal.
No soil tillage offers these optimal planting conditions. Also traditional tillage that disrupts soil microbes and exposes soil to wind and conditions that cause erosion and/or loss of topsoil. When oxygen is introduced into the soil through tillage, the breakdown of organic matter is accelerated. According to an Australian study, carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus tend to be higher in no-tillage systems than in reduced-tillage and conventional tillage systems. Needless to say, poor soil quality and loss of topsoil are not conducive to plant growth, as witnessed by the Dust Bowl era.
And more importantly, when precision techniques are used to plant seeds with the right amount, timing and position of injected fertilizer that is most beneficial to the plant, the plants will thrive. This method allows for optimal growth and creates deep root systems in mass cultures. Deep root systems tend to absorb excess water needed and used by the plant system. This allows the water to remain in the soil and reduces excess runoff.
Strip-till systems tend to reduce labor, fuel consumption, and irrigation on farmland. While strip seeding requires farmers special equipment, environmental and crop production can be a tremendous boon to the farming system in the future. Sunrise Farms, owned and operated by Laurie, Jim and Jake Isley in Palmyra Township, is the first farm in the county to begin strip-till farming. Over the next month, their experiences with soil conservation, deep root crop systems, water retention and experiences developing the strip-till method will be discussed.
Deborah J. Comstock is a local smallholder. She is a member of Lenawee Indivisible and a member of the Palmyra Township Planning Commission.