Spring Moldboard Plowing? Really?

Hoosier Perspectives

Not everyone has received the conservation message.

Published on: May 20, 2013

You can dust off tillage trials by Don Griffith, a former Purdue University Extension agronomist, that date back into the 1970's and 1980's. Of all the systems studied, moldboard plowing in the spring was one that typically returned the lowest yields. Many Indiana soils are simply too heavy and wet to respond well to plowing in the spring when soils tend to have extra moisture, and clods form easily.

Fast forward to 2013. Most moldboard plows are parked. A few companies still make new ones, but they're largely for other parts of the country, and they're made in small numbers. You'll have a better chance finding a toy plow in a farm toy auction than a quality moldboard plow at a farm auction today.

So why is it that my wife, Carla, spotted someone pulling a moldboard plow in central Indiana recently, on May 15, no less? Most farmers were wincing and going ahead and planting even though the soil was wetter than they liked. Here was someone plowing – moldboard plowing, not even chisel plowing. She had to look twice because she didn't believe it.

No doubt they had their reasons. If they see this maybe they'll let us know. Right now, I can't think of any. I thought we were past the days of turning up bare soil and burying all the residue, and forming clods for the seedbed. I thought we were past the days of burning extra diesel fuel to turn over soil. There are too many tests that show that even if you aren't ready for no-till chisel plowing, vertical tillage, disking, almost anything is more cost-effective than moldboard plowing, and certainly more environmentally friendly.

It's a free country, so far, so this person has the right to farm as they please. But it also gives credence to people like Mike Starkey, Brownsburg, a no-tiller and cover crop proponent, who believes the next farm bill should require people getting subsidized crop insurance to comply with conservation standards. Otherwise they have no incentive for using more modern methods that certainly shined in 2012, because they know the government will bail them out through their guaranteed crop insurance amount.

There was a time when I pulled a red moldboard plow like the one Carla saw, and blew black smoke, and plowed when the soil was wet. But that was 30 years ago, before I learned about things like soil compaction, hypoxia, the cost of diesel fuel, and before there were Roundup Ready crops and a wide array of herbicides that makes conservation tillage feasible. Today I can't imagine why you would want to hook onto a moldboard plow in the middle of May and go plow. If the field was dry enough to plow, it was dry enough to plant, and the calendar is certainly ticking on corn yields.

This one is a real head scratcher. Agriculture and farming is certainly not one world. It will be difficult feeding 9 billion people pulling moldboard plows.