No-Till And Cover Crops Combine For Healthier Soils

USDA's NRCS agronomist says too many landowners are disconnected from the soil.

Published on: Apr 10, 2013

It's an understatement to say Ray Archuleta gets passionate about soil. He's a conservation agronomist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greensboro, N.C., and travels the country and overseas preaching the benefits of healthy soils.

He spoke this spring to more than 250 farmers and conservation leaders that filled a machine shed at Green Cover Seed, owned by Keith and Brian Berns, just outside Bladen. Archuleta wishes all landowners would become as excited as he is about improving soil healthy through no-till and the addition of cover crops.

"Farmers say they love farming, and they do, but the majority of them are disconnected from the soil," he said. "They don't know how it works. Our goal is to reconnect them to the soil."

Ray Archuleta
Ray Archuleta

He calls the soil a living ecosystem, not a growing medium for crops. Healthy soils consist of bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, earthworms and many other organisms that produce biotic glues that hold soil together. These are no-till soils that are high in organic matter and water infiltration, recycle nutrients and control erosion. There are millions of tiny pores, creating porosity that leads to higher water infiltration."

"Tillage destroys the habitat for these microorganisms," Archuleta said. "It releases CO2 and exposes the biotic glues which are then eaten by copiotrophic bacteria. The soil aggregates collapse and seal the soil surface. When the microorganisms die, they release soil nitrates."

But it's not just no-till alone that leads to better soil health. Soils need to have living root systems within them beyond the growing season, Archuleta said, and that's where cover crop mixtures come in. "Cover crops should be called living cover," he added "When I get corn and soybean crops off in the fall, I plant cover crop mixtures. They are a love offering to my soil microbes."

Archuleta said no-till fields can still erode if they don't have cover crops growing in them to make soil aggregates. "You have to build aggregates by planting cover crops."

He referred to use of no-till/cover crops as "low-risk farming" because of the benefits of capturing retaining soil moisture. "I know of famers with these systems who haven't had crop insurance for 7 to 8 years."

He's not opposed to selective use of herbicides, but said he doesn't apply inorganic fertilizers.

Farmers who till are compensating for poor soil health and loss of nutrients by applying fertilizers and herbicides in excessive amounts, according to Archuleta.

Cover crops stimulate the microorganisms in the soil and, among other benefits, produce nitrogen.

A planting of multi-species cover crops produces a collaborative beneficial effect, he added "There is a mutually supportive interaction between the legumes, grasses and brassicas in a cover crop mix and the competition factor is lessened."

He added, "Soil health means freedom from external inputs."

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