What’s that black stuff in the road ditches?

As I was driving around the countryside this week, the lovely Minnesota wind gave me an idea. During the winter, have you ever wondered why the snow in some road ditches looks so black? To be honest, I had never really thought much about it until Jacob explained it to me a couple years ago. That black stuff in the ditches? Well, that’s topsoil from fields that has been blown away. It’s just collecting on the snow in the ditch, rather than staying in the field where we want to keep it. It prompted me to share a little bit about how we are trying to prevent that from happening on our farms!  

In the left picture, you can see black topsoil that has collected in the road ditch from wind erosion on a conventionally tilled field. On the right, you can see one of our no-tilled fields and the corresponding ditch. Not so dirty!

One of our main goals for our farm, HyTest Ag, is to leave the land better off for our children. We want to protect and preserve the soil, because once it’s gone, it takes nearly 100 years to regenerate just one inch of topsoil. Say what?! A few years ago, in order to help prevent that, we started making the move to 100% no-till and utilizing cover crops as our tillage methods, rather than conventional tillage practices. 

No-till farming is an agricultural technique for growing crops without disturbing the soil. Conventional tillage practices, also known as cultivating, ripping, or plowing, turn over about the first 6-10 inches of the soil before planting new crops. This works crop residues, animal manure, and weeds into the field, essentially blending it into the soil. It also aerates and warms the soil. Sounds great, right? The downside to this practice is that it loosens the soil and removes any plant matter covering it, leaving the soil bare. So, when wind and water hit the soil, they erode it, thus creating the black snow you see in road ditches. 

By practicing no-till on our farms, the soil structure stays intact and it also helps protect the soil by leaving crop residue (corn and soybean leaves, stems, etc.) on the soil surface. So, when the barreling Minnesota winter winds come through, the covered surface helps keep the topsoil where it should be – in the field. The improved soil structure and cover additionally helps increase the soil’s ability to absorb and infiltrate water, which in turn also helps reduce erosion and runoff.

Soil microorganisms, like fungi and bacteria, are critical to soil health, and they also benefit from no-till farming. As the soil is left undisturbed, the organisms can establish their communities and feed off of the soil’s organic matter. This is important for nutrient recycling and helping to suppress plant diseases that we can often see in corn and soybeans. As the soil’s organic matter improves, so does the soil’s structure, which helps to grow more nutrient-dense crops. 

In 2021, most of Minnesota experienced a pretty severe drought. Our farms were a part of that, but thankfully we still had incredible yields. We attribute part of that to our no-till practices because they also help slow evaporation, which means better absorption of rainwater. Additionally, it increases irrigation efficiency, leading to higher yields, especially during hot and dry weather, which we experienced during our last growing season.

Another huge incentive that pushed us to move to no-till is that these practices decrease input costs and work hours. By practicing no-till, we don’t need a full lineup of tillage equipment and we’re not paying fuel or maintenance bills to send a tractor over the field one or two more times (which also helps decrease soil compaction) to “prepare” the seedbed. Additionally, no-till decreases the work hours for someone in the tractor, which either means we aren’t paying someone to do tillage and/or our husbands have more time to work on other things, or maybe just come home a little earlier to spend time with their families. 😉

To piggyback off of my post earlier in the week responding to a recent New York Times article, no-till farming also fits into the bigger climate change solution. Healthy soil plays an essential role in drawing down and sequestering carbon. Soil naturally stores carbon, so when it is plowed under as organic material (plant roots and microorganisms), it rises to the soil’s surface. This temporarily provides nutrients for crops, but as it is exposed to oxygen in the atmosphere, it becomes carbon dioxide, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

Side note: *Agriculture only accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Additional post coming soon on this topic, friends. 🙂

Since no-till minimizes soil disturbance, it helps keep carbon in the soil. When combined with cover cropping, no-till practices can help increase soil organic carbon by up to 9% after two years and 21% after six years. We also utilize cover cropping, but I’ll share more on that in the spring when we don’t have snow on the ground and can see green fields. 😉

So, to wrap it up, here are the major benefits of no-till farming:

  • Reduced soil erosion and compaction
  • Increased soil biological activity
  • Higher organic matter content
  • Improving and protecting the soil structure
  • Managing soil moisture
  • Reduced fuel usage
  • Less work hours

This is a newer practice in our neck of the woods in Minnesota, so some people probably think we’re crazy for moving this direction, but hey, it works for us. We’ve actually seen increases in our crop yields over the last couple of years, and we’re ultimately trying to protect and preserve the land we steward. I have to admit, we have heard comments like, “What in the world are they doing?” “Why didn’t they get their land tilled?” “Gosh, what are they doing over there now?” We just giggle and try to share about what we’re doing, because we have legitimate reasons for utilizing these practices as I mentioned above.

That’s the beauty of agriculture – farmers have the ability to utilize practices that work for them and their farm. Do what works for you! And that goes far beyond farming. 🙂

If you have any questions about no-till and our farm, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Facebook (Ellyn Oelfke) or Instagram (@ellynoelfke). I love to talk about what we do and the why behind it. 

Rooted in ag and led by faith,


Sources used:
Soil Formation | NRCS Washington (usda.gov)
What is No-Till Farming? – Regeneration International
UC Davis leads effort to accelerate wheat breeding (agriculture.com)
Saving Money, Time and Soil: The Economics of No-Till Farming | USDA

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