Nothing looks prettier or more satisfying to a farmer than rows of healthy crops growing tall and straight. All the plowing, tilling, soil prep and fussing to make ad keep those rows straight may not be the best for the plants, the soil, or the farmer’s bottom line.
Keeping soil the healthiest it can be produces the healthiest plants, and soil and conservation experts are encouraging no-till practices to help green up farmed lands.
“Nature does not till,” said Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. “Which begs the question: Why do we?”
When soil is heavily tilled, the stalks from the previous crop are chopped, and the top several inches of soil structure are disturbed. Conventional thought suggests this fluffing action allows for better seed placement, but Archuleta said that no-till systems, especially when combined with cover crops, are better, and lead to healthier, more drought-resistant soil.
No-till has significant financial benefits for producers, too. “No-tillage can save thousands of dollars every year in fuel, labor and equipment maintenance,” Archuleta said. “The key is to let the soil organisms do the work.”
Archuleta compares soil aggregates to the soil’s lungs and circulatory system. Aggregates provide oxygen for roots, increase pore space for water infiltration and reduce erosion.
Aggregates are also micro-ecosystems for housing bacteria, fungi and other soil organisms that are responsible for breaking down residues and soil nutrient cycling. The majority of these organisms are housed in the upper few inches of the soil – the top soil that is being damaged by tillage.
Any tillage causes organic matter to decompose, resulting in loss of soil carbon. Archuleta recommends no-tillage and adding fresh organic matter, such as manure, compost, and root and plant residue from living, diverse cover crops. Soil organisms use this as food to create healthy, biologically active soil ecosystems.
Archuleta suggests farmers use cover crops to address functional soil issues like compaction. “Tillage vegetables, such as radishes, grow deep into the soil to break apart compacted areas,” he said. “Annual ryegrass, crimson clover, winter cereal rye, oats and other cover crops also do a good job of reducing compaction and retaining moisture in the soil.”
There is a process in transitioning to a no-till operation. Farmers have to re-tool and change management practices on herbicides and rotations, but most importantly, they need to have an open mind at the possibilities that no-till with cover crops can bring.
Farmers may need to continue experimenting with different varieties and combinations of cover crops, including planting multiple species to find just the right companion plantings, but yields will significantly increase.
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