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It’s true: Earthworms thrive in no-till fields

residue in no-till field
PILES OF RESIDUE: This residue didn’t come out of the combine this way. It appears that earthworms have piled it up as they prepared to pull it down into their holes as a food source.
Commentary: Worm holes under piles of crop residue are proof of what goes on in a no-till system.

I waited in the field as Rich Schlipf, Milford, Ind., planted his first round to get things set. The field was long-term no-till. In recent years, he’s included cover crops in the system.

As I waited, I noticed residue from both last year’s soybean crop and the previous corn crop on the surface. No-tillers go to great lengths to spread residue evenly behind the combine to leave a good seedbed for planting the following spring. However, I noticed that in some spots, clumps of residue were pulled together.

I’ve heard stories from enthusiastic soil conservationists about earthworms and redworms getting so numerous in long-term no-till fields that they pull long pieces of residue into their burrows as food sources. Even as dedicated to telling the conservation story as I am, I often took those stories with a grain of salt. That seemed like quite a feat for such a small creature. And I’m pretty sure they don’t make superhero capes for creatures that small!

Maybe they should make little capes with a big W — for Super Worm! As Schlipf made the turn at the other end of the field and headed back on a planting pass, I kicked at one of the piles of residue. It came off and revealed two good-size worm holes underneath.

PROOF POSITIVE: After the clump of residue is removed, note the worm holes underneath.

I kept kicking at clumps of residue and continued finding worm channels all the way to the surface. Sometimes there would be two channels, sometimes just one. I didn’t find a worm by just looking on the surface, but it was obvious what was happening. The stories were true. Worms do come to the surface in fields that aren’t disturbed by tillage. They do pull in pieces of residue. Apparently, they have enough power to pull residue together over the tops of their channels. Soil conservationists call those channels “middens.”

Schlipf made it back to me, turned and stopped before starting the next pass. He waited for me to climb aboard. I was there to watch Precision Planting’s SmartFirmer technology in action on the planter. But the first thing I wanted to talk about was a marvel made by nature, not man — earthworms!

I told Schlipf what I had found while I was waiting for him. He wasn’t surprised.

“Our soils have lots of worms working in them,” he said. “The truth is it’s hard to pick up a handful of dirt without grabbing a worm along with it. It’s one of the things I really like about our no-till system.”

Schlipf said he had been in other fields that were conventionally tilled and looked for worms. He seldom found any. “Once I asked the farmer where his worms were,” he recalled. “He really had no idea what I was talking about.”

I have a good idea — I believe in the power of earthworms! 

TAGS: Conservation
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