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Conservation-tillage pollution claims hard to understand

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Table of Contents:

• UCS casts aspersions on a practice that allows some farmers to improve soil conservation.

• UCS folk have no clear understanding of how conservation-tillage works.

• Plowing to kill weeds is not part of most reduced-tillage systems.

Some also plant into small grain stubble and residue from a previous crop — which also helps prevent erosion through fall and winter months.

Some no-till farmers I’ve interviewed over the years also plant cover crops following fall harvest for the express purpose of holding soil over the winter and supplying residue at planting. Those cover crops also build organic matter and the root systems help move water deeper into the soil, stockpiling it for the next crop.

It’s not always feasible, however. Cover crops, like the plants that will follow them, require moisture. Apparently, UCS folk have never spent a winter in the Southern High Plains of Texas, where the wind blows strong and rainfall is uncertain.

Even with irrigation, the challenge of maintaining a cover crop throughout the winter may require more water than can be depended on or justified. Conserving water is also part of a sustainable system. Water demand for a cover crop must be balanced against the potential advantages. Sometimes it works out; sometimes not.

We’ve written many articles depicting the various ways farmers use reduced tillage practices, including cover crops, to improve soil conservation efforts, preserve water and prevent runoff. We’ve applauded efforts of those who found ways to improve stewardship — sustainability — while maintaining profitable yields. And still we have self-righteous organizations that hijack the term “sustainability” and define it in their own narrow terms. To be sustainable, a practice has to make sense. In some cases, cover crops fit that criterion. In some they do not.

Farming is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Creativity and flexibility are part and parcel of any successful agriculture enterprise and trying to fit all operations into one pigeon hole is doomed to failure.

rsmith@farmpress.com

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