What is in this article?:
- Soil is alive with organisms that convert air, water, organic matter and soil nutrients into a robust soil-plant system that can supplement and enhance seed, nutrient and crop protection technologies.
- Evaluate your soil-plant system as a synergistic, holistic system – not isolated tools of tillage, drainage and nutrient management. If you change or alter one tool, such as a transition to no-till, consider how to modify other factors for success.
- Rethink field management over an entire year, not simply in-crop. If corn-on-corn maximizes your economic opportunity, consider intercrop rotation with a cover crop.
- Create a long-term plan to improve and enhance soil conditions and track your progress.
GREATER NO-TILL SUCCESS
Nester says his clients are taking note of the benefits. “As we introduced cover crops into the system, the main thing we saw was a faster transition of soil quality that lends itself to more successful no-till,” he says. “Growers are getting better stands and sooner. With improved water infiltration, they are getting on fields sooner, and that really helps the no-tiller keep up in the early years of no-till.”
In the past, Nester says, he worried more about eliminating compaction and balancing calcium and magnesium before a grower converted to no-till. Cover crops are improving soil structure (particularly cereal rye and tillage radishes), earthworms are more prevalent and excess nutrients are being absorbed for later release. Nutrient absorption is especially important following a drought year that left many nutrients unused.
“Efficient recovery of nutrients and keeping them in the field is the No. 1 thing we need to raise better crops,” says Nester. “A healthy soil lets larger root systems proliferate, which captures a higher percent of the nutrients in the field. You need fewer applied nutrients. With poorer soil structure, you need to saturate the soil with nutrients, as the plant will find a smaller percentage of nutrients.”
As seen this past year, water is often the constraining nutrient. Here, too, cover crops take no-till to another level. While the increased biological activity, including earthworms, encourages heavy rains to move into the soil rather than off the surface, the increased organic matter from combined no-till and cover crops helps fight crop stress of all kinds.
“No-till has made good improvements in soil quality and soil health, but cover crops go beyond no-till alone, keeping something alive and growing throughout the year,” says Alan Sundermeier, Extension educator, Ohio State University. “We are seeing substantial bushel increases on healthier soils with cover crops and no-till.”