Click here to listen to the podcast. Here’s an excerpt:
The eastern plains of Colorado are a world away from the Rocky Mountains for which the state is famous. It’s flat, wide-open grassland, and if there is a tree on the horizon it was probably planted there by a human to offer respite. It’s an unforgiving place to do agriculture—but many do—practicing something called “dryland farming,” in which people like [Nate] McCaffrey’s family grow wheat, millet, sunflowers, and corn using only what falls from the sky.
“Mother Nature only provides a certain amount of moisture, and we have to use it to the best of our ability and be creative,” McCaffrey says. Because water is so scarce on the high plains, being “creative” means that most farmers there have adopted the practice of fallowing their fields to bank the rain that does fall to save it in the soil for the next year’s crop. After harvest, the soils are tilled and then left to “rest,” so to speak, and often sprayed with herbicides to suppress weeds. The result: for over a year the ground is virtually bare and lifeless. Fallowing was stressful. McCaffrey said, “Growing up on a farm all my life, all I ever knew was going out during that fallow period and stressing about trying to kill every weed out there and keep the ground as bare and clean as you could keep it because you were using moisture.”
Not to mention, the soil was getting hot. There was no groundcover, so every time it rained much of the water would evaporate. Research shows that fallowing land only retains about 25 percent of the moisture that falls in a given year, but to farmers in this area, it was the only realistic way to grow the next cash crop in such a water-starved region.
To Till, or Not to Till—That Is the Question
So when it was time for McCaffrey to go out on his own, he was conflicted about sticking with the so-called “conventional” way of farming, which required tilling and a fallow rotation. It got to a point after being out in his fields night and day tilling the ground, that he’d ask himself, “What good am I doing? Am I just out here trying to raise a crop? Am I just out here trying to create revenue? Or am I actually working toward something that somebody is going to care about in the future?”
The answer was metaphorically blowing in the wind—the soil that was being lost from erosion had to be protected, he determined. To accomplish that, the first thing McCaffrey decided to do was go “no-till.”
Tillage is what you picture when you imagine a farmer on a tractor pulling a plow. It’s meant to prepare the ground for the next season by burying residue from the previous crop, leveling the soil, and killing weeds by cutting them off at the knees.
However, research shows that tillage has some serious downsides. It compacts the soil, and by tearing up the ground it breaks apart soil structure, which can lead to erosion. McCaffrey says it also disrupts soil microbes and other beneficial organisms like earthworms, which he says help with water retention and water infiltration because as the creatures make their burrows, water follows them down into the root zone.
So McCaffrey jumped in with both feet. Not only did he sell his conventional machinery, (so he couldn’t waffle on his decision), he bought new no-till equipment that sows his crop by opening up a small slot in the soil and dropping in a seed. This method leaves most of the ground undisturbed, and one immediate bonus was saving money on fuel costs and labor because he would no longer need to spend endless hours on his tractor tilling.