Ed Montsma, a cash grain farmer from Fond du Lac County, WI, has developed a deep appreciation for the value of good soil health. “I've learned to work with the soil, not against it,” he says.

Good, healthy soil is a breathing, living material — a very complex one — teaming with all kinds of vital nutrients and organisms that serve as a solid foundation for good land stewardship, Montsma says.

This appreciation partly arose from using a chisel plow and making the transition to no-till farming about eight years ago. The rest came from taking part in a recent soil study that examined the benefits of no-till farming and maintaining good levels of organic matter compared to conventional tillage methods.

Montsma, along with his family, farms nearly 2,200 acres, raising mostly corn and soybeans with about 250 acres of winter wheat and alfalfa. The family also manages a small 45-cow dairy.

“I basically follow a corn and soybean rotation, but I do rotate in winter wheat and alfalfa on certain soybean fields,” says Montsma. “When I first switched to no-till, I had some reservations about yield drag; however, those reservations soon passed. Depending on the growing season, I may now reach average yields of 2-10 bu. more per acre on the no-till ground.”

Overall, Montsma says no-till farming has big benefits. For example, last year his no-till corn outperformed conventional till in a side-by-side comparison on 40 acres.

“July and early August were very dry. But unlike the conventional tilled corn, the no-till planted corn showed no signs of wilting or stress,” says Montsma. “No-till corn yields were about 2 bu./acre higher. My corn averaged about 151 bu./acre, and the soybeans averaged about 51 bu./acre.

“The no-till corn also exhibited excellent standability throughout the growing season and during harvest — a condition manifested by, I believe, a healthier soil that promotes robust and deeper root growth.”

Compared to conventional tillage methods, Montsma also says no-till has cut labor and fuel costs nearly in half, allowing him to farm more ground.

Another big incentive to switch to no-till was a six-year contract with the Fond du Lac County Land and Water Conservation Department (FCLWCD) and the state's Department of Natural Resources. Montsma signed up 1,500 acres in his watershed area of Seven Mile Creek. The contract offered $15/acre/year for maintaining crop residue levels of at least 30-50% on the soil surface. This revenue benefit also gave Montsma the opportunity to purchase a John Deere Model 1780 no-till planter.

“Improving soil health doesn't happen overnight,” says Becky Wagner, an agronomist with the FCLWCD who worked with Montsma on the soil study. “Making a transition to no-till requires patience and time, but the end results are worth it in terms of better soil health and conditions.”

In the comparison study of no-till versus conventional or minimum tillage methods, here are a few key results Wagner and Montsma found:

  • Overall, soils under a strict soybean/corn rotation using no-till practices contained almost twice the amount of organic matter than those soils prepared by a chisel plow system.

  • With no-till, soils had a lower bulk density and higher infiltration rate compared to the chisel plow system. Soils were also more friable and exhibited good to excellent tilth.

  • Soils managed under no-till had greater aggregate stability. More earthworm channels and castings were reported, compared to none in the chisel plow system. Soil compaction was not present on no-till fields.

  • Low levels of plant parasitic nematodes (herbivores) as well as beneficial nematodes were reported in both no-till and conventional tilled fields, suggesting that perhaps both had low concentrations of microbial biomass at the time of sampling.

The soil health study conducted by Wagner with Montsma was part of a statewide project involving several researchers at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison and county extension agents who worked with about 10 other farmers. Testing locations were also picked based on different soil types and crop management practices.

Results from Wisconsin were also linked to an even larger, multi-state effort known as The North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program.

In cooperation with Michigan State University, which is home to the Center for Integrated Plant Systems, Wisconsin and 10 other states began to coordinate efforts to more fully examine the interrelationships between soil quality and ecology, and growing and managing crops.

Other states involved include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Ohio, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Missouri.

“The most powerful part of this program centered on examining soil data collectively and then making basic correlations between the measures of soil quality and farming practices within Wisconsin as well as outside our state,” says Leslie Cooperband, soil scientist at the UW-Madison. “Continuing these efforts will help expand the understanding and importance of soil health and ecology as an important foundation in crop management and sustainable agriculture.”

Organic Matter's Real Value

“While not all organic matter is created equal, because it can come from different sources, it's still often viewed as the key ingredient linking the biological, chemical and physical properties of the soil, says Leslie Cooperband, soil scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

According to Cooperband, here are some of the benefits of organic matter.

A reservoir of nutrients: Organic matter helps store and supply plant nutrients (i.e., N, P and K) and micronutrients, and increases cation exchange capacity.

Promotes aggregate stability: Organic matter stabilizes and holds soil particles together as aggregates, which helps curb water and wind erosion or soil compaction.

Aids growth of crops: Organic matter improves soil's ability to store and transmit oxygen and water — conditions often measured by improved porosity, water holding capacity and drought resistance.

Promotes good soil tilth and structure: Makes soil more friable and easier to work so plant roots can better penetrate the soil profile.

Food for beneficial organisms: Provides a source of carbon and energy for soil microbes that recycle nutrients and help plants resist diseases.

A biological glue: Reduces negative environmental effects of pesticides, heavy metals and other pollutants by binding contaminants, and helps reduce leaching of minerals and nutrients.