No-till and cover crops: A perfect combination

Gloria Hafemeister
Soil scientists demonstrated Wednesday how healthy soil absorbs water like a sponge and water will run off of unhealthy soil, carrying nutrients and soil particles with it.

Editors note: This is the first in a series on soil health

JUNEAU - More than 260 people attended Healthy Soil-Healthy Water workshop on Feb. 8 in Juneau, including farmers, members of area Lakes Associations, and crop consultants. Another 100 people attended a similar meeting for members of the Dodge County Lakes Group the same evening.

The workshop continued for interested farmers and consultants at the Condon farm near Horicon where featured speakers detailed how to get started and answered the many questions of interested farmers.

The educational event was an eye-opener to some who have been tilling the soil and raising crops in much the same way their dads and grandpas did. To others, it reinforced what they have found on their own in the last couple of decades – that no-till and cover crops and proper handling of nutrients helps to build a healthy soil that stays in place.

The meeting was organized by a collaboration of farmers and entities including, agronomy companies, and county, state and federal government agencies. It is the first step in the formation of a producer-led Watershed Farmer to Farmer non-point group that was formed late last year after the Dodge County Board of Supervisors was asked to require all farmers in the county to install buffer strips along all the ditches and waterways on their farms.

The event featured five panel discussions and three speakers who spoke on ways to develop a system that improves soil health. In all the presentations about preventing soil erosion, not one speaker suggested buffer strips as a solution to erosion and run-off into waterways.

Mimic nature

The keynote speaker was Ray Archuleta, a regional Soil health Specialist for the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Health Division. Archuleta spoke on ways farmers can mimic nature by feeding the life in the soil rather than forcing production with equipment, fertilizers and chemicals.

While he did not suggest farming without these tools, he demonstrated how the living microbes in soil help with filtration, the development of organic matter, feeding crops and controlling weeds.

According to Archuleta, “There is no buffer in the world that will help keep runoff from getting into a stream. You need to make the field the buffer.”

Ray Archuleta shares ideas for creating healthy soils with attendees at the Healthy Soil workshop in Juneau on Feb. 8.

He began with a demonstration of how water flows through different types of soil, showing how no-tilled soil absorbs it like a sponge but the water runs off the tilled soil, taking particles with it.

“We don’t have a run-off problem. We have an infiltration problem,” he stated.

Archuleta said farmers and government agencies have been talking about preventing erosion since the 1930’s dust storms. Government agencies have come up with incentive programs that help finance things like strip farming, grass waterways and leaving crop debris on hillsides. Farmers have enrolled in these programs because they were required to according to their farming permits or because there was a cost incentive.

“When you make a conservation plan, adopt a no-till system or plant cover crops as the goal you’ve already lost. You need to understand soil function and apply it because you know that by creating healthy soil, you will raise better crops and prevent erosion at the same time,” he said.

He adds, “If you want to harvest more rain, keep a cover on the top and a sponge underneath. More than that, soil that is not covered heats and gets hard and causes more problems.”

He demonstrated how living critters in the soil hold it together. Tillage tools and chemicals kill the critters.

“We need to be careful how we use them,” he said. “But notice, I did not say do not use them at all.”

Not sole solution

While he is a proponent of no-till farming, something many farmers have done for decades, he stressed that alone it does not solve the problem. Cover crops are needed to feed the eco system – the living creatures in the soil.

“If you take the plants away you have geology (dirt and stones). If you put covers on, they fuse the soil with life and you have biology,” he says.

He illustrates how in other areas of science, inventors mimic nature. Velcro, for instance, mimics the way burrs from a burdock plant cling together. Robots mimic the way an elephant’s trunk works.

In agriculture, farmers need to mimic nature. The deep healthy soil in prairies and forests developed due to the diversity of the plants and no disturbance.

The bottom line, according to Archuleta, is that no till is a biomimicry but won’t work unless we feed the microbes.

Showing a photo of an unassembled car, with parts scattered all around, he said, “Which one of these parts will drive you down the road? Will the tire? Will the steering wheel? Will the engine? You need all the parts working together in order for it to accomplish the task.”

He further stated, “A buffer is a piece but it won’t help if you don’t put it together with the other parts such as no till and cover crops.”

Regarding cost, he says “If you are mimicking nature all your inputs will go down.”

He notes, “Our most limiting problem is how we think. We have mindless obedience to old paradigms. Dad and Grandpa did it this way so we need to do it this way, too. We have a lack of systems-thinking.”

Offering encouragement to the newly formed farmer-to-farmer workgroup he said, “We need leaders. Conservation plans do not inspire. Leaders do. Scientific knowledge does not teach you why.”

He concluded by pointing out that wisdom is different than knowledge. It must be personal. A farmer must adopt a better system because he or she understands why and the benefits, not because he is told he must do it.

The program also included a presentation by a Pennsylvania farmer who has had success creating health soil and several farmer panels featuring systems farmers are already using with success. Their stories will be featured in the coming weeks.