UNDERCUTTING - TRADITIONAL METHOD MAKES LOCAL DEBUT
Tilling the soil is almost as old as dirt itself.
Most likely, as man moved from hunting and gathering his food to growing it, he began breaking up the soil surface with simple sticks before planting.
As agriculture spread across Eurasia, history books say the first wooden plow, known as a scratch-plow, was probably developed in Mesopotamia during the 4th millennium B.C.
History also credits the Romans with developing the first soil inverting plows during the 8th and 10th centuries A.D.
By the 1800s, continued innovations had produced a plow used throughout the world known as the moldboard, named because of the curved board that turned the soil cut by the iron plowshare. A moldboard plow is capable of moving a lot of soil. Variations of the moldboard plow were used throughout Europe and America well into the 20th century.
With the introduction of the steam engine, even more earth was moved. And this widespread use of what is now classified as high disturbance tillage systems has been credited, along with a drought, to the severe erosion and soil degradation that created the dust bowl of the 1930s.
Hard lessons drove more farmers to explore how to conserve the land they farmed.
After World War II, soil conservation practices became the norm for most American farmers, and by the1960s the moldboard had fallen out of favor in the United States. Advances in better tillage systems included the practices of residue management and crop rotation. Advances in chemicals for superior weed control produced even more changes to tilling for weed control.
In the last half of the 20th century, some farmers embraced strict no-till systems, which requires retaining all surface residue in order to reduce moisture loss and limit the growth of weeds.
In between the high soil disturbance of moldboard plowing and the low disturbance of no-tillage methods, lie the multiple methods and systems of tillage used today Â— varied as the farms and farmers that employ them.
Earlier this summer, two innovative Union County farmers decided to try something new that has been gathering interest in the drier regions of the Pacific Northwest Â— a tillage tool called an undercutter.
Although undercutters have been around for at least 25 years, they were mostly used with little success in the Midwest and discarded by those farmers for whom they had shown little success.
According to Pendleton agronomist Larry Coppock, the patent for the original Haybuster undercutter Â— the only one with an adjustable shank Â— was filed in Canada in 1982.
For reasons Coppock does not understand, the undercutter was heavily marketed to the Midwest, although 80 percent of the rain there comes after the first of June. Severing a plant's wicking system stops moisture from traveling both directions, Coppock says.
"Summer fallow begins the first of May. In this part of the country, we get 80 percent of our rain during the winter. I don't know why the manufacturers did not promote them in this part of the country. Â‘'
So on a recent trip to the Midwest, Coppock bought three Haybuster undercutters and brought them home.
"Most of them were sitting in shelter belts (trees and shrubs planted as erosion prevention) rusting. I bought a 37-foot, which I've already sold, a 28-foot and a 20-foot," Coppock says.
If its run properly, Coppock says, an undercutter should look like the wake of a boat out behind it. He has seen several demonstrations on them at various field days and crop tours, but says most were running the blades too deep and driving too fast Â— "kicking up dust no different than a rod weeder,'' he says. "You might as well pull a plow."
Coppock says there has been such an increase in interest that many of the spring's field days and crops tours included undercutter demonstrations. So impressed with undercutters were about 50 farmers to the north, that the Washington Association of Wheat Growers applied for and received grant funding this summer from the Natural Resource Conservation Service to pay half of the $30,000 price tag for one undercutter.
Although farmers in this area have always known about the undercutter, the tool has never been used here.
As Dale Case puts it, "We knew about the undercutter, we just didn't think about it."
But Case is thinking about it a lot now. He and a neighbor, Paul Rudd, decided to try the low-till tool on some of their own summer fallow fields. They rented one of Coppock's recent Midwest purchases. Most of them sell for about $1,000 a foot, Case says.
"This one's about 30-foot long," he says. A significant investment.
Case says his objectives were to retain moisture, limit weed growth and reduce soil disturbance.
The undercutter's V-shaped blades are set to ride just below the surface of the earth, severing a plant's root systems.
Essentially, the undercutter cuts a growing plant off at the knees.
Without capillary roots to draw water up to the soil surface at night Â— and lose it to evaporation during the day Â— water is retained in the soil's seed-zone throughout summer fallow for the fall planting.
"Using the undercutter should also mean less passes through the field Â— which saves me money Â— also causing less disturbance to the soil and cutting down on carbon loss," Case adds.
Case explains that carbon sequestration has become an important part of conservation practices in agriculture. The less the earth is disturbed, the less carbon is released into the air. And the less carbon, the better for the environment.
Watching Case pull the undercutter smoothly through the field did bring to mind the soft wake of a sail boat. Each blade gently lifts the soil as it passes under the surface, laying it back down in a rippling effect as it moves on. He moves slowly, releasing little dust into the air. About the only way to tell where the undercutter has already been is by the wilting vegetation laying on top of the soil.
Off the tractor, Case bent down to scratch aside dry, powdery soil and some of the plant residue. And there, just a few inches below the surface, was a dark, moisture-rich layer of earth.
Two months after using the undercutter, Case says he is pleased with the results, although he's not sure an undercutter is the "100 percent answer to summer fallow farming.''
"The objective was achieved," Case says. "The moisture is holding up really well. We did have to go back in and kill some more weeds, but that's to be expected under summer fallow."
He says Rudd, who also rented the undercutter, seemed to be pleased with his results as well. Will they try it again next year?
"Well, if we can get it over here again, I will," Case says.
Whether anyone else will try it, however, remains to be seen.
"I think the undercutter is a viable tool. But how farmers achieve their objective is up to the farmer,'' says Mike Burton of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. "Both Paul Rudd and Dale Case are on the cutting edge of innovation in their farming practices, but everybody needs to find what works for them.
"You know, farmers are the innovators we follow. They know they're pioneering when everybody thinks they're weird. Then in 10 years' time, everybody's doing it and it's always been done this way."