Farmer Focus: Putting a compacted field into intensive care

It is hot and dry in South Africa. I live in the summer rainfall area of South Africa but so far this summer we have had precious little rain.

By this time in the season we should have finished planting our summer crop. I have planted about a third under very precarious conditions.

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When people hear that I am a no-till farmer, I often get asked how often I need to loosen the soil. In their understanding of no-till one must work the soil every few years.

Almost as if it is a set rotation that the soil must be loosened every fifth year, for argument’s sake. I always respond to a question like that with another question: “How often do you need to take antibiotics?”

They are usually a bit perplexed by the question, as they only use antibiotics when they are sick. The same applies to no-till. Soil only needs to be loosened when it is sick.

The most common reason to work a no-till field is to mix lime into the profile as it has become acidic.

Remedial action

I have decided to plant a summer cover crop on a field this year. This means that I will forgo the opportunity to plant a cash crop and plant a cover crop mix instead.

This field is very sandy and has a very hard layer or pan at about 20cm. I have decided to put this field into intensive care. It is going to get a good deep rip to break the pan. I will then sow it to a cover crop mix. On the surface, this cover crop will protect this exposed soil from wind and water erosion.

Underground there will be a network of roots that will go through the ripped pan. This cover crop is not totally lost to income as I will be able to graze it.

The net result will be a nice organic mulch on the surface with a good root network underground. This bout in intensive care will help the soil to be healthy and productive for many years into the future.