A decade or two—or maybe three—ago, tillage slowly became a dirty word on the prairie. I can remember hearing many farmers in the 1970s express a the-more-passes-the-better opinion when it came to cultivation. But that coffee-shop wisdom was flawed. In fact, serious erosion of prairie soils was making magazine headlines at the same time many continued to espouse the virtues of having black, fallow fields covered with dry, powdery soil.
Eventually, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. No till gained popular approval as opinions changed, and it has, in large part, helped push dry-land grain and oilseed yields through the roof. Although no till remains the primary production practice for growing crops on the prairie, the pendulum seems to be inching slightly back toward regularly including some tillage.
As many agronomists now advocate cultivation in moderation to solve specific problems in specific places, some prairie farmers are once again adding tillage tools to their farm fleets—and using them. Similarly in regions of the world where intensive tillage has remained king, there is also changing sentiment toward the practice. The pendulum there is also swinging back toward more moderate use.
During a trip to implement manufacturer Lemken’s International Press Day near Kassel Germany last week, I heard the term “pfluglos” (I think I spelled that correctly), which, could be roughly translated, as “without the plow”.
Although a walk through Lemken’s factory in Alpen Germany revealed the plow isn’t about to go extinct anytime soon, the company still churns them out in large numbers to meet continuing European farmer demand. But many are rethinking their dedication to it. The belief among early adopters of pfluglos is that the plow is no longer the go-to implement. Instead, they look more often to newer, less aggressive tillage equipment.
The current sentiment among many producers on both continents seems to be there is a place for some measure of tillage in virtually every farming system, but it has to be done intelligently to achieve a specific goal. Thinking on trend, it seems, means neither abstaining completely nor using very high disturbance tools.
And anyone following the industry can’t help but notice today’s newest tillage implements bear little resemblance to what granddad used during the heyday of prairie cultivation. Soil re-consolidation (following a tillage pass) is a term Lemken’s product specialists mentioned a lot during the event in Germany. That means leaving a firm surface on tilled soil ready for seed that better resists erosion.
Today’s equipment is designed to work fast and shallow, not slow and deep—another difference. And a few may find this surprising, but electronic technology is now a feature on some of Lemken’s tillage implements. The computerized systems are designed to maintain consistant, accurate working depths and also help transfer load to the tractor to reduce wheel slip during hard pulls.
Maybe the biggest difference in equipment design is the number of options available that now allow farmers to fine tune tillage to exactly what is required on any farm at any time.
As a small group of us sat in a conference room at Lemken’s factory talking about the brand and its products, Christian Jungmann, the company’s export sales manager, seemed to sum up today’s cutting edge approach to tillage with this comment: “The right tool at the right time”.
For prairie farmers, picking the right tillage tool now involves deciding on much more than how many feet of working width their tractor can handle. Then come the questions of exactly how and when to best use it.