Up Close and Personal Look At Soil Health

An evaluation of soil cores reveals how no till farming is impacting soil quality.

Published on: May 2, 2013

By Jenny Vogel

Six farmers evaluated the impacts of their conservation efforts last month by pulling soil core samples to evaluate the effects of no-till and cover crops. We visited Gasper farms, C & D farms, GT Vogel Farms and Larry Maschino Farms.

In a field no-tilled for 10 years and planted to cover crops for three years, the sample had roots over three feet deep. Other fields that had been no-tilled and planted to cover crops had roots over four feet deep.

In drought years, rooting depth is critical. We have to get the roots down to the available water. In the cores, there was evidence of roots that followed channels created by old roots, earthworms and even a crawdad tunnel.

Crimson clover works- A cover crop of crimson clover and oats planted last all produced this pattern of rooting. The oats die out during the winter.
Crimson clover works- A cover crop of crimson clover and oats planted last all produced this pattern of rooting. The oats die out during the winter.

"Roots are lazy," Dena Marshall, an NRCS specialist says. "They only go as far as they have to for water."

Other findings
Several samples had microorganisms that are critical to improving soil health. Tim Gasper saw mycorrhiza in the sample from his field. They help extend the reach of roots for nutrients.

Soil stability was also demonstrated and discussed. The soils that have been no-tilled and were protected with cover crops were crumbly and easier to break apart than soils that have been conventionally tilled with no cover crops. Roots from the crops not only create channels for water to move through the soil, they improve the structure of the soil by allowing it to hold the right amount of water.

The concept of planting cover crops isn't anything new. Gilbert Vogel says, "I remember dad planting clover every other year and then we would plow it under in the spring." Marshall added, "Now we understand the science behind it and how it works."

The group of farmers who saw the root digs agreed that their decision to use no-till and plant cover crops in the fall as the best practice they can use to improve their soil health. They saw it proven on their own fields.

Vogel is district conservationist for NRCS in Jennings County. She writes from North Vernon.

Post-Drought Soil And Fertility Issues
Just what has the drought left behind for the 2013 crop? And what steps do you need to take to get land ready for planting? Download our FREE report, 5 Post-Drought Strategies For A Better 2013.