Find Out What's Under Your Feet

If you no till or grow cover crops, there's more under there than you think!

Published on: May 2, 2013

Jenny Vogel, a district conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, wanted farmers to see what they were gaining by no-tilling and growing cover crops. She enlisted the help of Dena Marshall, also with NRCS, and Bob Steiner, Executive Director of the Jennings County Soil and Water Conservation District in North Vernon.

They took a soil probe capable of drilling cores four feet deep and asked six farmers to join them in their fields.

They did it in early April when the cover crops had sufficient growth, and only shortly before the farmers would knock them down with burndown herbicides to get ready to plant. In some cases the cover crop, forage radishes, were killed off during the winter, but had left evidence of success behind.

Plenty of roots- Note the roots from this sample pulled from a field with a rye cover crop in early April.
Plenty of roots- Note the roots from this sample pulled from a field with a rye cover crop in early April.

A firsthand look at the power of what these roots can do to improve the soil is worth it, they concluded.

One year of no-till and cover crops won't fix what 40 years of conventional farming did to soil health. However, it's a start in the right direction, experts say. Barry Fisher, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, says it's a win-win because it also pulls carbon into the soil all year long, not just during the growing season. That can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that some believe contribute to greenhouse gases.

Cover crop roots growing through the fall and spring can also tie up nitrogen, keeping it up from going downstream and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. This year will be a crucial test of how well cover crops captured N last fall. In many fields where the corn zeroed out due to drought, lots of N was left. Given the wet spring, unless something like growing roots tied it up, most of it has disappeared, either evaporated or left through tile lines.

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Plant Cover Crops In A Drought Year? You Bet. Cover crops can help conserve moisture, keep soil covered and provide residue going into the cropping season. Download our free report Cover Crops: Best Management Practices.