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Some Soils Tougher To Improve Than Others

Some Soils Tougher To Improve Than Others
Will cover crops root down through tough soils? Indiana Farmer does a little experiment to find out.

The soils around Larry Huffmeyer's place take extra loving care compared to soils on the prairies. The 2012 Outstanding Conservation farmer of the year lives in southeast Indiana near Napoleon. While he has some rolling soils, he also farms a good amount of soils now called Cobb's Fork soils. They have gone by different names – buttermilk flats, slash ground, and even officially Clermont.

Find roots! Larry Huffmeyer found roots down deep in this profile of a Cobb's Fork soil. Cover crops had grown on the surface.

Whatever the name, the properties are the same, Huffmeyer says. These grayish soils are poorly drained and contain a high clay content. They dry out slowly. For many years people thought they couldn't be drained. Now they've found they can be, but surface drainage and land leveling may also need to be part of the processes to make them productive and farmable, especially in wetter than normal years.

Huffmeyer no-tills when he can on these soils. He's also tried cover crops, and continues to use them. One of the advantages of cover crops is supposed to be putting roots deeper into the soil. Recently he wanted to see if his cover crops could penetrate the hard Clermont soil profile and go deep enough to help loosen it up.

He took a round soil core about three feet deep where he was growing cover crops and brought the soil in to his shop and let it dry out. Then he broke it apart in sections and looked for roots. Many people do this by digging pits, but winter isn't the best time for digging pits and standing in the cold, looking for cover crop roots.

Huffmeyer found what he was looking for – roots down toward the bottom of his profile. He didn't find as many roots as he has seen in other soils, but he was glad to find that some roots could penetrate the heavy, gray, wet soil.

He knows he has to deal with a soil with lower organic matter and a lower cation exchange capacity than he would think. He also knows it takes longer to build this soil back. But he's hoping the rooting power of cover crops will help turn him in the right direction for improving soil health, even on these soils.

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