Farm Progress

A central South Dakota farmer increases yields and builds topsoil with no-till, cover crops and livestock.

November 16, 2018

2 Min Read
NO-TILL BELIEVER: Terry Ness examines the diversity of life in one of his no-till small grain fields.Sarah Fitzgerald

It didn't take Terry Ness, Pierre, S.D., long to become a believer in the benefits of no-till.

Ness started no-tilling 28 years ago. In his second year of no-till, he got 11 inches of rain in one day on already saturated soils. While the runoff from the storm eroded conventionally tilled fields around his farm, the soil on his no-till fields stayed in place. He had no runoff.

"I knew what I was doing was the right thing, but that hammered it home," he says.

Ness says he got higher yields in the dry years that followed. The extra moisture that the soil absorbed made a difference.

Ever since, Ness has been working to improve no-till and the health of the soil. He diversified his crop rotation. He started planting cover crops. About seven years ago he began planting full season cover crops and turning livestock out on those fields to graze the extra forage.

The habitat the cover crop provided for pheasants was bonus.

"It works out pretty good," Ness says.

Soil pit reveal
In the spring of 2018, Ness got another confirmation that his effort to improve soil health was paying off. A soil pit that the Natural Resources Conservation Service dug on a small, once-eroded knoll on one of his fields showed that he had added 6 inches of topsoil to the site.

"It was shocking," Ness says, who remembers being told in college that it took 500 to 1,000 years to build 1 inch of soil.

No till helps speed up the process, says Jason Miller, NRCS conservation agronomist, Pierre. When crop residue breaks down, it feeds the soil biology. It helps produce a substance that holds the soil together. Even as it's breaking down, the residue serves as armor protecting the soil biology. It also intercepts raindrops and deflects wind.

"It's the house. It's the foundation. It's the protection for the soil biology," Miller says.

Source: South Dakota Soil Health Coalition

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