One Farmer's Journey: No-till, Cover Crops, Improved Soil Health & Yields

My journey into conservation started as a teenager in the mid-1980s— I was tired of picking rocks every year and filling ditches from erosion on a regular basis. We had changed to mulch-till by then to reduce erosion. We had also started transitioning from a corn and hay rotation to a corn and soybean rotation.

I read the farm magazines, which were beginning to talk about no-till. I decided to subscribe to the No-Till Farmer magazine to learn as much as I could about how to make this work. Through that magazine I learned of an Ag Spectrum meeting that was within driving distance. At that meeting, I learned a lot about how no-till could work but that it also takes some tweaking for each individual. It became clear that once it is successfully in-place, no-till provides benefits to the soil and environment as well as for the farm’s bottom line.

After that, I talked my dad into trying no-till and we eventually switched to a pure no-till system and have stayed that way. We have gone through several planter configurations since then, always learning and improving. Many other things have been changed over the years as well, including row spacing, herbicides and residue management at the combine.

While no-till has helped tremendously, it has not been the answer to all our erosion issues. The years we had 50- and 100-year rain events (sometimes more than once in a year) left too many small ditches where there was concentrated water flow. Repairing those ditches required moving soil in some way and that is hard on the soil structure that had developed from years of no-till. Some neighbors had started drilling oats after chopping corn to help hold their tilled soil in place. One year we decided to grow rye grass in our problem areas after harvest. That following spring we had some heavy rains, and where we had a cover crop growing on soybean stubble, we had no erosion. The corn strips above or below that cover crop had erosion, even though they were 100 percent residue covered. That was a major eye opener — that a cover crop could keep soil in place and that existing residue alone could not stop erosion.

About this time, cover crops were getting some press in the farm media. I studied the information I could find and learned of all the soil benefits that might be achieved by having another crop growing to cover our soil for more months out of the year. In 2012, USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding became available to help cover the cost of trying cover crops. It was an easy choice to sign up and try cover crops on a larger scale to see what they could do for the soil. However, 2012 was a dry year and we had chosen to have the cover crop aerially seeded. We had close to a total failure on cover crops that year—no more than 20 percent of the seed germinated. Knowing the results we had seen in prior years by drilling the seed, we decided to purchase our own drill. We have had excellent results drilling our cover crops and seeded 1,200 acres of land into covers in the fall of 2016.

I have been to many soil health clinics in the past few years. I continually hear how beneficial multiple species of cover crops grown together are to the soil through biodiversity. I planted a 30-acre multi-species plot this year so I could learn more about the benefits of planting more than one cover crop species. Ideally, most multi-species covers should be seeded in August for the biggest benefit.

Since I currently grow only non-GMO corn and non-GMO soybeans, I can’t seed my cover crops until late September at the earliest (mechanically) and residual herbicides are an issue. Some agencies and seed companies say that cover crops like brassicas and legumes shouldn’t be planted late, after the fall grain harvest, as they may not germinate and take root. But some, like the scientist and soil health advocate Dr. Jill Clapperton, along with others she has worked with, tell me differently. So I have decided to test this theory. I have had some growth of covers this fall and hope some of it will overwinter.

My hopes going forward are that I can soon start to reduce applied fertilizers as the soil becomes more biologically active and can cycle my nutrients faster. I have already seen runoff reduced greatly and erosion virtually stopped. I also hope to see my yields continue to rise from the microbial benefits taking place in the soil.

Spring, Grove, Minn., farmer Myron Sylling talked about the use of cover crops in his no-till system during a Land Stewardship Project soil health workshop earlier this year.