A number of years ago, Carl Brubacher looked at his soils and realized something had to change. He’d been relying on a full complement of tillage passes and he could sense his topsoil levels were becoming shallower. What he wanted was to find a way to avoid falling into the trap the U.S. has experienced, where an average of 6.3 inches of topsoil had been lost in the last 150 years.
It was during that search that he learned about the CurseBuster, a U.S.-manufactured implement that passively fractures soil up to eight inches deep by way of targeted tillage. Brubacher, who operates Carlotte Farms near Arthur, Ont., immersed himself in the implement, its design and the research conducted on its impacts on soil health. That led him to conduct his own research, and what he found was enticing since the results aligned with soil health teachings.
“We were full-tillage farmers and we knew something needed to change,” says Brubacher, whose rotation includes canola, corn, soybeans, winter wheat and white beans. “When we consider the drastic results of erosion in full tillage practices and soil and nutrient losses, it’s astounding. In 20 years of farming, we saw effects of erosion and the lack of soil health taking place.” That’s when Brubacher decided to purchase a CurseBuster with the machine arriving on the farm in the autumn of 2015. (Note: More recently Soil Regeneration Ltd. and Riteway Manufacturing in Regina, Sask., have also entered into a manufacturing agreement.)
The CurseBuster machine consists of two rows of Eagle tines running on a drum that’s positioned low to the ground so it “hugs” the soil. The tines are eight inches in length and are followed by a Phillips rotary harrow on the back. The first row of tines is set on 10-inch spacing, and those tines enter the ground ahead of the second row of tines also on 10-inch spacing. The tines on the second row enter the same holes as the front row but side-fracture the soil in the opposite direction. The Philips rotary harrow helps flatten the corn stalks and residual cover and levels the soil, providing a more even seed bed. Best of all, the sub-surface fracturing leaves all of the soil relatively undisturbed, even with a cover crop on top. The tines also have a slight drag in speed causing fracture below the tine depth.
“Soil is 50 per cent air and water and by fracturing the soil, we’re de-compacting and opening up any density layers in a very passive way while enhancing the no-till benefits, hence quicker decomposition of stalk material on top,” says Brubacher, adding that to date he’s had no slug issues. “It’s an excellent machine to plant cover crops with and apply liquid manure, if it’s available, after a tillage pass because it causes the manure to immediately soak into the fractured soil. The soil is still firm enough to carry weight and ideal for drag-lining because there’s cover on top and no layer of loose dirt.”
Another benefit for Brubacher is that it meets all soil health requirements for his variable soil types that he farms, which is important to him since he recently joined the Ontario Soil Network. The group is expanding its numbers, encouraging those who are looking to manage their soils as a companion to better-managing their crops. With the use of the CurseBuster, Brubacher has noticed that his worm counts are higher.
“We’re drastically increasing worm populations due to mulching, which keeps the moisture gradient intact to the soil surface, it keeps material on the surface available for foraging and can lower summer soil temperatures near the surface,” he adds. “It also improves water transport to prevent the drowning of fingerlings in spring and late summer, restores soil-gas exchange cycles and there’s no destruction of soil fungal communities below two inches in depth. The results have been worm counts as high as 80 to 90 worms in a shovelful.”
In addition, Brubacher believes the erosion of soil and nutrient losses that came with his previous tillage regimen has decreased with this min-till approach. His soils are more resilient, there’s less leeching and run-off, the soil structure has improved and he finds they’re better able to withstand compaction of any equipment operation. The machine also helps reduce the need to pick stones, since it doesn’t bring them to the surface as often happens with conventional tillage.
From a cost-reduction perspective, he’s been able to cut back on diesel fuel and tractor hours as well as cut back on nitrogen due to a large root system and increased organic matter. He’s also managed to reduce phosphorus-based fertilizers, a result of improved P uptake by plants within the context of microbial transmission.
“Only small amounts of P are in water uptake as soluble P2O5, and soils have the potential with microbiology to supply phosphorus needs,” says Brubacher. “Our tillage practice is allowing the microbial population to expand its presence so that phosphorus availability to our plants is increasing on a regular basis, as well as soil passing through the worm population and increasing measurable phosphorus by at least a factor of three or more.”
It’s been an exciting process for Brubacher and he looks forward to what the next few years will bring under the same management regimen. “It’s a simple way to farm in a sustainable way, growing great crops while keeping soil and nutrients in the field,” says Brubacher.
The CurseBuster was originally designed by a company called Soil Regeneration Ltd., based in Indiana but with distributors operating in other locations. The implement is actually a hybrid, combined with a tine designed in New Zealand more than 30 years ago. According to Brubacher, there are now 13 CurseBusters in operation in Ontario with more sold for this spring.