Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till

 


Using cover crops and continuous no-till together in a conservation system over time maximizes soil health and may lead to yield increases and other benefits.
 

Photo courtesy of CTIC

 

 

Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till




Why this project?
Using cover crops and continuous no-till together in a conservation system over time maximizes soil health and may lead to yield increases and other benefits. Because of the benefits to be gained, CTIC has embarked on the three-year project, "Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till." Through this project, eight producers in Ohio and Indiana will transition to the practice, with the support of consultants, workshops and field days.

By not disturbing soil and maintaining growth on land for as many days as possible, the natural cycles of the soils are restored. Residues and roots create more organic matter in the soils. Increased organic matter serves as a food source to various soil organisms and increases the biological activity. Higher biological activity increases nutrient cycling and availability and also reduces nutrient loss from runoff. Soil structure and tilth are improved, increasing infiltration rates and reducing compaction.

Despite these benefits, many farmers still believe tillage leads to higher corn yields. In a single year, this may be true. With tillage, the breakdown of organic matter is accelerated, and nutrients are quickly released to the crop. However, continuous tillage decreases soil organic matter, decreasing the overall level of released nutrients. With less organic matter, soil productivity and soil structure decline. Over time, our soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of the original organic matter, primarily due to tillage and soil erosion.

Continuous no-till plus a cover crop reverses the effects of tillage and restores soil productivity, ultimately providing higher yields with fewer inputs.

During the initial transition to continuous no-till, some growers experience a decrease in yield in sensitive crops like corn. This yield lag occurs for several reasons.

• Lack of tillage initially reduces the amount of nutrients released from surface residues.
• As soil biological activity increases, more nutrients are tied up by microbes.
• As soil builds organic matter, nitrogen must stabilize the organic residues, so temporarily, nitrogen may not be available to the corn.
• Soil compaction from previous tillage and heavy equipment causes denitrification on heavy clay soils, resulting in a loss of available nitrogen.

Adding cover crops to continuous no-till works to reverse these problems.

• Cover crops reduce soil compaction and improve carbon inputs and nitrogen recycling.
• As soil organic matter levels build, more nitrogen and phosphorus are efficiently recycled and released to the soil through increased microbial populations.
• Nitrogen losses decrease as soil compaction decreases, due to improved water infiltration.
• Ultimately, soil nutrient storage, water infiltration, soil structure and soil tilth improve.

The benefits of cover crops may help the soil’s ecological balance be restored in two to four years, rather than seven to nine. Soil type and prior management will influence the time required for these changes.

With dedicated effort and the input of consultants and CTIC staff, the producers involved in "Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till" should see the benefits to be gained from practicing no-till with cover crop use.

Project Director

Angie Williams
E-mail: williams@ctic.org
Tel: 765-376-4504

Funded by

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Innovation Grant

Project Period

2008 – 2011

Project Partners

Midwest Cover Crops Council, Purdue University, Michigan State University, Ohio No-Till Council, The Ohio State University Extension, Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative

Project Summary

In 2008, CTIC launched a three-year project, “Using Cover Crops to Facilitate the Transition to Continuous No-Till,” to provide technical and social support to producers in Indiana and Ohio wanting to expand their use of cover crops and continuous no-till, two proven conservation practices. With consultant services, workshops and opportunities to learn from peers, this project provides assistance needed to get conservation on the ground.

Project participants — four Indiana producers and four in Ohio — are transitioning a portion of their fields to continuous no-till, while incorporating cover crops into their rotation. Crop consultants provide technical and social support during the transition. Consultants meet regularly with their partner-farmers, assisting with equipment adjustments, timing, seed selection and other related decisions.

“We know that the first five years of a no-till system can be the most challenging,” says Angie Williams, CTIC Project Director. “Using a cover crop, however, can make that transition easier and reveal the benefits of the system.”

This project also offers educational and social opportunities — workshops, farmer network meetings and online communities — so that participants, partners and other producers in the region can improve their understanding of cover crops and no-till and the associated benefits.

Progress

Consultants and producers met and developed plans for adoption of cover crops to begin the transition to continuous no-till. Producers planted their first cover crop and will no-till plant this spring. Jeff Rasawehr, participating producer in Celina, Ohio, says he believes the project is already a success.

“I really believe that for the next level of sustainability in agriculture, this is the answer,” he says. “Our next move in agriculture is this system, which results in better use of our energy, better use of our fertility, better crops and better soil. I hardly see any negatives.”

Soil testing was performed during the first spring, and will be performed again in the spring of 2011 to determine changes in the soil after two seasons of continuous no-till with cover crops.

Seventy producers, consultants and other stakeholders attended the project’s first workshop and field day held August 2009 in Madison County, Ind. Attendees learned the benefits of cover crops and no-till, saw cover crop planting and examined soils that had been in long-term no-till and cover crop systems.

The project’s winter producer networking meeting, held on Feb. 16, 2010, in Fort Wayne, Ind., attracted 100 producers to hear Dr. Jill Clapperton, Earth Spirit Land Resource Consulting, share her knowledge about soil biology.

In addition, experienced no-till producers provided a panel discussion on using cover crops in their rotations. Topics included nutrient use, successes and challenges with various cover crop varieties and benefits from this system.

CTIC is creating an online community of continuous no-till producers in Indiana and Ohio to provide opportunity for information exchange, encouragement and social support. CTIC encourages all producers participating in the program, in addition to others who practice continuous no-till, to participate. E-mail list serves, a Web site and in-person meetings will connect producers and establish regular communication.

CTIC will host a second workshop in summer 2011, in Ohio, to highlight the project’s progress and share the experiences of participating producers.

Watch the CTIC Web site, www.ctic.org, for stories about these producers, as they work through the seasons and discover what brings them success.

To find out more about this project, or to become a part of the online producer community, contact Angie Williams at williams@ctic.org.