The idea that the previous use of a field can influence how it performs in the present may seem simplistic to most people, especially those who have farmed most of their lives. There are, however, many factors that make this statement true, and quite a few of them may be new to even the most experienced farmers.
Reduced tillage and no-tillage farming practices can be used to increase profits, and in most cases yields too. These methods of producing crops have been especially important for the resumption of crop production in the Hill areas where I spend much of my time. Soil erosion can be essentially eliminated, and growers can farm in compliance with conservation guidelines. Many of the growers in this region who have either expanded or have resumed the growing of crops after many years have found that the history of each field is very important for success.
Before the field is considered for cropping, it should be evaluated for drainage issues. Many formerly farmed areas need to have their drainage systems brought up to workable levels since most channels have been clogged with debris. This work can get complicated since in some cases the classication may have changed. With this issue resolved we can move on to soil quality considerations.
The first thing that comes to mind when we think about the history of a field is soil fertility. Soil samples must be taken to determine the needs of the soil, and the laboratory recommendations should be followed as closely as possible. When there are major problems a grower may decide the expense will be too great, or that a long term program of improvement may have to be implemented.
A common problem in most of this area is soil pH, with most formerly idle fields needing lime. Phosphorus and potassium levels may be low, especially in fields where hay has been harvested without the addition of nutrients or lime, as is the case in many old fields. Poultry litter has been especially useful in bringing many of these “abused” fields back into production.
Another issue that has been difficult to deal with is shallow compaction in fields where cattle have been grazed, and especially those where cool season crops like ryegrass have been grown and grazed. The planting of summer crops into these fields can be difficult since no-till planters have problems penetrating the soil surface. Stand establishment is very difficult in some of these situations, and we may need a system such as strip till for planting these fields.
The future will require that we grow more food for the ever increasing world population. In order to do this we will need to farm more land and to produce higher yields from every acre. We can meet this challenge, but aggressive farmers will be required, and they will need to be supported by good information and open minded people who will help them rather than getting in their way.