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Saving soil starts with these practicesSaving soil starts with these practices

Simple demonstrations show how to save more soil.

Tom J. Bechman

October 12, 2023

3 Min Read
hand holding a mound of soil with crop roots poking through
HEALTHY SOIL: Need to improve soil health? Cover crops can lead to this kind of soil structure over time. Photos by Tom J. Bechman

Maybe you have soils needing more tilth and structure. And perhaps the water running off your field after heavy rains is brown with sediment. If seeking to make improvements, shifting tillage and adding cover crops may be part of the solution.

“We do several demonstrations to show how long-term no-till soils with cover crops and conventionally tilled soils react differently in various situations,” said Amanda Kautz, state soil health specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Indiana, during a summer field day.

“One test is as simple as taking a clump from each field and dropping the clumps in side-by-side cylinders of water,” she said. “The conventionally tilled soil will tend to break apart quickly, and most of the soil particles wind up at the bottom of the cylinder. There is little to hold soil particles together.

“Meanwhile, the no-till soil tends to hold together because there is more structure. It stays together and does not break apart nearly as easily.”

Amanda Kautz holding soil

Kautz also did a second test, called a sump test, which showed the same properties in a different way. After making a slurry with both conventional-tilled soil and soil from a no-till field with cover crops, she flipped the cups upside down on a hard surface.

“The conventional-tilled soil just spreads out because there is nothing to hold it together,” she explains. “The no-till soil with cover crops tends to stay more intact as a clump.”

Cover crops can help

So how do you get soils with more desirable properties, including better water infiltration? One way, Kautz said, is to include cover crops in your plans. “They’re a great way to improve soil health over time,” she added.

Roger Wenning, Greensburg, Ind., planted various cover crops in summer ahead of his annual field day. By his field day in August, he had examples of cereal rye, brassicas and legumes, including hairy vetch.

Hans Kok, soil conservation consultant, noted that cover crops, in combination with no-till, over time create healthier soils with more structure. The field where Wenning planted cover crops for the field day hasn’t been tilled in years.

“We found some really good examples of soil structure near the surface,” Kok said.

two NRCS specialists look at soil samples

Some cover crop selections, like hairy vetch, supply major amounts of nitrogen for the cash crop if allowed to grow long enough in the spring, Kok said. But Wenning gained nitrogen by growing red clover longer than other cover crops before planting green into it. The secret, both say, is developing a system that allows you to manage cover crops for your desired benefit.  

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No till

About the Author(s)

Tom J. Bechman

Editor, Indiana Prairie Farmer, Farm Progress

Tom J. Bechman is editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer. He joined Farm Progress in 1981 as a field editor, first writing stories to help farmers adjust to a difficult harvest after a tough weather year. His goal today is the same — writing stories that help farmers adjust to a changing environment in a profitable manner.

Bechman knows about Indiana agriculture because he grew up on a small dairy farm and worked with young farmers as a vocational agriculture teacher and FFA advisor before joining Farm Progress. He works closely with Purdue University specialists, Indiana Farm Bureau and commodity groups to cover cutting-edge issues affecting farmers. He specializes in writing crop stories with a focus on obtaining the highest and most economical yields possible.

Tom and his wife, Carla, have four children: Allison, Ashley, Daniel and Kayla, plus eight grandchildren. They raise produce for the food pantry and house 4-H animals for the grandkids on their small acreage near Franklin, Ind.

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