Farm Progress

Building healthy soils requires teaming up no-till with cover crops, say this farmer and an NRCS expert.

John Vogel, Editor, American Agriculturist

January 18, 2016

3 Min Read

Jim Biddle has figured it out: Better, healthier soils produce better yields at lower costs. And, he didn't have to move to another farm to make it happen.

The veteran no-tiller from Williamsburg, Pa., has been cover-cropping every acre of Mill Hill Farm since 2002. "He really saw soils respond to no-tilling once he started using cover crops," reports Penn State Extension Agronomist Greg Roth. "Last fall, he had a wide range of great cover crops – triticale, triticale-radish mixes, some mixes with ryegrass and or crimson clover and loads of earthworm castings."

Triticale is the base ingredient on all 580 acres of corn, soybeans and some double-crop forage sorghum, explains Biddle. It fits the dairy farm's systems approach for top-quality feed plus timing of manure application and planting. Triticale is harvested in mid-May, and followed by no-till corn and soybeans. "That allows three to four weeks extra root growth where we use triticale for a spring forage harvest," adds Jim.

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IT'S A SHOVEL-BUSTER: Jim Biddle broke the fiberglass handle on his shovel digging out this cover crop "tool".

Jim and son, Josh, who manages the dairy, drill their cover crops between late August and late October. "Since there are huge advantages to multi-species, we add radishes (in early September) and/or crimson clover (late September)."

Clover needs a longer season to build soil nitrogen. The triticale cover crop benefits, as well, with longer root growth and higher forage protein quality and close to 8-ton yields. The Blair County producer also notes that only 25% of the farm's cover crops are harvested.

No-till helps build soil structure. Cover crops increase soil microbial activity, which in turn feeds the entire food change up to and including earthworms, he summarizes.

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SOIL'S ALIVE! Proper care and feeding of healthy soil microbial populations start building organic matter and plant health within two years, says NRCS's Ray Archuleta.

"The key to cover cropping is in the roots which feed those microbes and create soil pores to allow air and water to flow through a larger portion of the soil profile. It's a proactive process to building soil carbon levels and improving soil health."

Biddle considers cover cropping just as important no-till. It keeps every acre protected and biologically active year around. That's one reason Mill Hill Farm won Pennsylvania's Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Farm award.

Where no-till missed the mark
Ray Archuleta may be a fervent no-till "preacher". But even this Natural Resources Conservation Service conservation agronomist, agrees: "No-till is not enough – not for building soil health.

"I don't recommend it without cover crops and excellent rotations. No-till stops soil destruction, but doesn't feed it," he elaborates. "While it does better than conventional tillage, it's no match for no-till and cover crops grazed by animals."

NRCS initially promoted no-till incorrectly by making it the central focus. "We missed the mark. However, no-till plus cover crops changes the whole equation."

It is holistic systems thinking that best mimics regenerative nature – keeping soils covered 100% of the time and building healthy soil microbial populations to feed crops, he explains. It has reduced fertility needs more than 50%, completely eliminated insecticide and fungicides, and reduced herbicide applications by 90%. Teaming up no-till with covers has improved soil infiltration rates and increased water-holding capacities.

"Our best producers use no-till, cover crops and animals to graze the cover crops," adds Archuleta. "These guys have reduced inputs by huge amounts. It's raising great corn yields at costs of only $1.75 per bushel. It's systems synergism!"

About the Author(s)

John Vogel

Editor, American Agriculturist

For more than 38 years, John Vogel has been a Farm Progress editor writing for farmers from the Dakota prairies to the Eastern shores. Since 1985, he's been the editor of American Agriculturist – successor of three other Northeast magazines.

Raised on a grain and beef farm, he double-majored in Animal Science and Ag Journalism at Iowa State. His passion for helping farmers and farm management skills led to his family farm's first 209-bushel corn yield average in 1989.

John's personal and professional missions are an integral part of American Agriculturist's mission: To anticipate and explore tomorrow's farming needs and encourage positive change to keep family, profit and pride in farming.

John co-founded Pennsylvania Farm Link, a non-profit dedicated to helping young farmers start farming. It was responsible for creating three innovative state-supported low-interest loan programs and two "Farms for the Future" conferences.

His publications have received countless awards, including the 2000 Folio "Gold Award" for editorial excellence, the 2001 and 2008 National Association of Ag Journalists' Mackiewicz Award, several American Agricultural Editors' "Oscars" plus many ag media awards from the New York State Agricultural Society.

Vogel is a three-time winner of the Northeast Farm Communicators' Farm Communicator of the Year award. He's a National 4-H Foundation Distinguished Alumni and an honorary member of Alpha Zeta, and board member of Christian Farmers Outreach.

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