No-till practices result in moist and cool soils
Moist, cool soils are among the benefits farmers like Paul Hetland appreciate when they implement use of no-till and cover crops.
Even though these conditions can become a hindrance during planting season, Hetland, who farms near Mitchell, S.D., finds that the moisture reserves no-till and cover crops help make available to his crops during July and August easily offset any struggle he encounters when it’s time to get crops in the ground.
“My farm’s yellow clay soils hold water, but with conventional tillage and low soil organic matter, rainfall infiltration is slow,” Hetland says. “With conventional farming methods, wet clay soils that dry out can cause the surface to seal. That further inhibits water percolation and can suffocate and rot plant roots.”
No-till practices support “clumping” of soil particles that will naturally form pores, both macro- and micro-pores. These open spaces are essential for water infiltration and also make it easier for plant roots to expand and grow.
“Crop residue that’s part of my no-till system can also pose seed-to-soil contact issues during planting,” Hetland says. “To address that, I use a combination of row cleaners and coulters and make sure my planter’s down-pressure is adequate.”
Hetland also introduced cover crops to help improve soil structure leading to improved soil tilth. “We plant cover crops into all our standing wheat stubble.”
The cover crops’ canopy helps break down the wheat stubble more quickly. Dark-colored covers can help warm soil in the spring because they absorb more heat from sunlight. Covers help reduce evapotranspiration when temperatures begin to climb because they keep soil cooler.
“In my no-till system, if I do have to plant into soil that’s not as dry as I would like it to be, I don’t encounter issues of soil that smears and then seals, preventing seed from emerging,” Hetland says.
By the time temperatures climb during July and August, moisture reserves that accumulated in the soil profile become available to plants as they need it.
Hetland’s experience with no-till has been that seed that’s slow to emerge due to cool, damp soils will “catch up” because of the adequate moisture reserves that are available later in the growing season.
Hetland said, “Healthy soils are important to long-term sustainability. I’ve found a synergy in my no-till system that simultaneously improves soil quality, soil health, soil organic matter and long-term yield. It has its challenges, but it gives plants a much better growing environment.”
–Natural Resources Conservation Service