The plow has been a universal symbol of farming since early Biblical times.
Mankind has sought ways to loosen soils so that seeds can find growing spaces in the ground to produce an abundance of healthy crops. Plow blades have been designed to turn over and open soils for centuries, but it was the shape and curve of the earth-digging device John Deere designed in 1837 that improved soil loosening chores for horse-drawn plow rigs and later steam, internal combustion and diesel tractors.
Not one speaker at a Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation District demeaned the plow during a Soil Health Workshop held in Batavia Tuesday morning, but an unspoken plea pervaded each presentation asking farmers to beat their plowshares into no-till or zone-till field tools for planting crops.
This workshop drew about 60 farmers from Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties to learn more about how to create healthy, functional soils that will increase crop production and help to reduce field work and amounts of fertilizers and weed killers used on those soils.
While this workshop focused mainly on commercial farmers striving to more efficiently produce cash crops, much of the discussion was useful to hunter/landowners interested in planting and maintaining food plots for deer, turkeys, upland game birds and wildlife in general.
Heath Eisele, a district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, began stressing farm-crop soils basic needs of water, physical stability, drainage, organic matter, fertility and field care.
“Think below the ground as well as on top,” Eisele said. Along with selecting seed varieties with shorter growing seasons, he urged planters to curb erosion by planting cover crops on fields where matured crops have been harvested.
For food-plot planters, that could mean anything from annual rye to assorted beans, beats and radishes.
Eisele explained that these cover crops help to control soil temperatures and reduce weed growth with a continuous green cover on soil surfaces.
In the spring, a standard practice is to kill off the cover, wait a week or so and then plow and plant a new crop. Eisele suggests planting a no-till crop into the field without applying Roundup or other weed-killers that need a week or more to allow the field to brown down.
Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, a Cornell University extension associate, outlined the need for soil health through a watchful shifting from plowing to no-till planting of corn, grain and bean crops.
Compaction from years of plowing at the same depths and disking at depths above a plow pan creates two hard layers in the soil’s vertical composition. “Good soil drains through a porous structure that provides water and air for crop seeds to germinate and grow,” Moebius-Clune said of healthy soil structure.
But to attain this soil health, she suggests that planters gradually change tillage methods. “You can’t just quit plowing; farmers must slowly switch to no-till (methods),” she advises.
Working soils too wet in the spring can increase compaction rather than loosen soils for good crop starts. She offered a practical suggestion for gauging when the soil dried enough to work for anyone from the largest commercial farmer to the backyard gardener growing a few tomato and bean plants.
Moebius-Clune recommends squeezing a ball of soil to see if it breaks apart. That is a standard suggestion, but some soils have differing compositions and a soil ball breaks differently with loam, sand or clay bases. She then asks planters to squeeze the ball of soil with just two fingers.
If it breaks apart, the soil is loose enough for planting. If it squishes and holds together, hold off on plowing, tilling or planting,” she said.
Molly Stetz, a student intern for Genesee County Soil and Water Conservation did an infiltration demonstration with soils from area farms. Stetz pointed out that this kind of soil test shows how compacted or loose and friable a field’s earth actually functions to apply water and drain around crops properly.
Eric Nixon, a certified crop advisor with Western New York Crop Management in Warsaw, does consultant work for the Northeast states and focuses mainly on farmlands in Erie, Wyoming and Genesee Counties.
Nixon began saying, “Worms are a good gauge of soil health,” and adding “Stay off wet fields.”
Various species of earthworms thrive better in soil that is not plowed or tilled. For this reason, Nixon highly recommends no till or modern versions of “Zone Till” that requires specialized equipment that plows only a narrow planting lane. The blade, most call it a “sub-soiler,” can be fixed with a tube to inject liquid fertilizer below the seed planted just below the soil.
Modern versions of these no-till planting devices can be set up for wide rows of commercial plantings or the smallest of quads and field tractors that can be fitted with these planting devices.
As for a soil moisture gauge, Nixon offered a basic suggestion: “If a two-wheel drive pickup can’t be driven across the field, don’t work the soil.”
Nixon offers consulting services for land owners interested in food-plot planting as well as commercial farmers working cash crops. For information about his field services, call (585) 786-5831, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or go to wnycma.com.
The workshop ended with comments and suggestions from Donn Branton of Stafford, one of the most versatile and successful planter/farmers in Western New York. Branton strongly recommends cover crops and incorporating manure into the soil in the fall.
Branton uses weed killers to clear cover crops before spring planting, but he relies on commercial-application experts to make sure his crops, not weeds, flourish on his fields.
He rotates corn and soybean plantings each season and suggests that planters “Leave a test area to measure your successes and failures.” As a control, keep a small, empty area or some grass or alfalfa next to a crop to see how good or poorly it grows.
His son, Chad Branton, an avid hunter, said, “Deer will eat just about anything out there, but if you want to keep deer around, plant radishes,” a reference to the forage radish.
For more details on planting, environmental quality and soil health, look for programs at the website nrcs.usda.gov.