A fable of six blind men and an elephant originated centuries ago somewhere on the Indian continent. In it the blind men try to identify an elephant by touching only one part. According to the fable each man came to a different conclusion as to what the elephant was. The parable illustrates that though opinions may vary, there’s some truth to be found in all of them.
That’s the way it is for conservation too.
Farmers conserve resources for different reasons. Some of us do it to save money or because we feel yields are better. Others do it to protect water, soil, plant nutrients, or prevent more carbon from entering the atmosphere.
And some of us conserve simply because it seems like the right thing to do.
I no-tilled corn into soybean stubble for the first time in 1986. 2 years prior I had purchased a new planter with double disk openers. Early that spring on a whim, I lowered the planter into some unworked corn stalks. Later when I pulled in to till the field for soybeans I saw 8 eight perfect rows of seedling corn.
I knew if the corn I planted into corn stalks would grow, corn following soybeans would work for sure.
Then, based on my corn experience, I was sure I could get a good stand of no-till soybeans. In a couple of more years I decided to try no-till soybeans following corn because it would save both time and money. To make it even better there were new contact herbicides that worked well against problem weeds and grasses.
Not every field I planted was perfect, but sometimes my conventionally planted fields ran into trouble too. With no-till I noticed less soil drying before seeds could germinate and less crusting after heavy rains.
Back then, like a blind man with an elephant, I could only detect parts of the whole.
Today, with more mouths to feed, more of the world under intensive cultivation, and more fossil fuels consumed than ever before, we can see the elephant in the room.
That’s because the sum of the parts equals survival on a fragile planet.
Its easier now than ever before to be a no-tiller. New machinery, like my current planter with on the go infinitely adjustable air down pressure and almost-clog-proof row cleaners makes good plant stands a cinch. Just one pass over the field compared to as many as three or four with conventional tillage means less compaction leading to still more tillage and even more compaction. And I’m returning less carbon to the atmosphere, not only because I’m sequestering it in years of accumulated crop residue, but because I’m burning one fifth the diesel fuel to raise the crop.
But there are more parts to the conservation elephant. There’s strip till, strip cropping, filter strips, cover crops, tree planting and wind breaks to name a few.
The more parts you see, the better it looks.