What’s the best and least expensive way to learn tons of information about your cropping system on your farm in the coming year? If you believe farmers who have done it, it’s as simple as digging pits in your fields! Dig pits and observe. Look for roots. Look for earthworms. Just look, observe and think!
“I can’t emphasize it enough,” says Cameron Mills, Walton. He no-tills and in his ninth year of growing cover crops.
“Until I dug a pit and saw the roots, I didn’t fully appreciate what cover crops were doing for me,” he emphasizes. “Just do a root dig- you will be glad you did.”
Here are five solid reasons why you should take a backhoe to the field this spring or fall and dig a pit. Your neighbors may think you’re fixing tile holes, or they may think you’re crazy. Mills would assure you that you won’t think you’re crazy after you do it.
1. Look for the roots!
“You may only have four or five inches of top growth of annual ryegrass this spring, and you may not think you’re getting your money’s worth out of it,” he says. “Don’t decide until you dig and look. We’ve done it on our farm, and we almost always find ryegrass roots down 36 to 40 inches.”
2. Verify that what you’re doing is working
Mike Starkey also no-tills and uses cover crops. The Brownsburg, Ind. Farmer planted soybeans no-till into tall, green cereal rye a couple years ago. Near the end of the summer, he dug two pits, one in each of two fields, invited over Barry Fisher, and a 150 of his closest farmer friends to check it out. He added some roast pork and it became a farmer field day!
Fisher is now a soil health regional manager for USDA- NRCS. “We found roots down several feet in the pits on Starkey’s farm,” he recalls.
3. Soil types matter
Fisher also recalls that roots were deeper in one soil pit than the other. Soils were lower in organic matter and had more drainage issues in one field. He observed to the crowd that gathered around him that cover crops were helping, but that the process was going slower than in the other field in soils with more organic matter.
4. Compaction layers stand out
If you aren’t in no-till yet or if you’ve converted recently, a soil dig might make it easier to see compacted layers. At a field day on Clint Arnholt’s farm near Columbus in August, there were plenty of roots, but there was still a ‘plow’ layer of compacted soil some 10 inches from the surface. The field had already been in no-till for several years, and more recently seeded with cover crops each fall too.
5. See and believe
Earthworms galore!- If soil health has improved, possibly due to no-till and cover corps, you will find earthworm and red worm channels, some going down deep. In Arnholt’s pit, Dena Anderson with NRCS found worm channels that were serving as avenues for crop rooting. Crop roots were evident down about four feet, to just above where harder, dense subsoil began.
If you don’t find earthworm or red worm activity, it might be time to ask why not, experts say. Either way, you learn by digging.