No-till planting, cover crops: ‘Twin pillars of soil health’

By MaryBeth Matzek, for Peninsula Farmer

Innovative planting techniques, such as cover crops and no-till methods, have something important in common: They improve soil health.

“Farmers who manage for soil health understand that the soil is a living ecosystem,” said Zach Sutter, nutrient management planning specialist with Rio Creek Feed Mill. “In order for that system to thrive, we want to mimic nature as closely as we can.”

Improving soil health is essential since it increases water holding capacity in the soil by increasing organic matter; reduces erosion; reduces fertilizer and tillage costs; and prevents nutrients from finding their way out of the field.

Sutter considers no-till planting and cover crops the “twin pillars of soil health.”

No-tilling leaves the soil undisturbed so that soil microorganisms can thrive. Cover cropping mimics the continuous cover of the natural soil ecosystem.

Both practices are picking up steam in northeastern Wisconsin as improvement-minded farmers see how it’s done at field days and by other farmers. The use of crops is outpacing that of no-tilling, Sutter said, because cover crops can be introduced into a rotation fairly easily, for little cost and without special equipment.

Together, the methods provide a powerful one-two punch.

“Using cover crops and no-till in combination gives the grower the best of both worlds,” Sutter said. “The learning curve for using the two in combination is steep, though, so they are used together in areas with a longer history of using the practices.”

Here is how each method works:

Cover crops: After a crop has been harvested, another crop is planted, whether it is a grass like rye or oats or a forage radish. These crops put down roots that help prevent soil erosion and improve overall soil health.

In Wisconsin, the two main opportunities for using cover crops are after winter wheat and corn silage are harvested, Sutter said.

Planting cover crops after corn silage is especially important because nearly all crop residue is removed from the field. Barley, oats or annual ryegrass are good options for plants that will winterkill. Winter rye, winter triticale and winter wheat can be used as cover crops that will overwinter. These overwintering crops can be taken as a forage in spring and can be followed by a short-day corn silage hybrid, sorghum-sudangrass or direct seeded alfalfa.

Sutter said that after winter wheat, farmers have several options if they are interested in planting cover crops. One popular option is daikon (tillage) radish, which grows a large taproot that can break up surface compaction.

“Farmers should talk to a trusted crop adviser who can help them choose a cover crop that matches their goals,” Sutter said.

No-till: Growing crops from year to year without disturbing the soil by turning over the land is called no-till. This practice increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil and increases organic matter.

For growers who want to get their feet wet with no-tilling, Sutter said winter wheat is a good place to start. Wheat establishes easily and will generally thrive in a no-till situation unless there is excessive compaction.

The key to successful no-till planting is seed placement, he said. Growers should check soil conditions and planting depth frequently and be cautious of sidewall compaction if soil is wet.

Adopting no-till methods can be a challenge for some farmers since multiple changes in practices need to be made, Sutter said. For example, the need to incorporate manure makes no-tilling unfeasible for some dairies.

“A specialized planter and grain drill is required for proper seed placement in a no-till situation,” Sutter said. “In cold, wet and heavy soils, no-tilling can cause soils to warm slower in the spring.”

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