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#Grow15: Benefits of No-Till, Cover Crops Mimic Mother Nature

In an average year, Norton County, Kansas receives about 25-inches of rainfall. Even if the rain fell at the right time, it is seldom enough to profitably grow a cash crop of corn. This isn't the Corn Belt, yet farmers in this area often grow corn in a crop rotation. Moreover, many of them use conventional tillage farm methods to put these crops in the ground. 

Ray Archuleta disagrees with both practices. Corn, he reasons, is best grown in less arid areas, or states where rainfall is more plentiful. Farmers from central Kansas west to the Rocky Mountains, he argues, would be better off mimicking the prairie ecosystems of old: diverse crop rotations staggered with diverse species cover crops. 

And don't even get him started on tillage. 

"We've known since the 1930s that tillage is destructive to the soil. I can't believe we're still having this discussion," says Archuleta, conservation agronomist with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service in Greensboro, North Carolina. 

Tillage is counter-intuitive to this natural ecosystem. It destroys soil aggregates and fills up pore spaces, causing soil to crust. In central and western Kansas, it is a brutal way to make a living as a cash crop farmer.

Archuleta is considered a father of the modern soil health movement, and he didn't disappoint his audience at the Almena (Kansas) Community Center on Friday, August 28. Conviction resonates in his message to farmers: to be successful, adoption of no-till and cover crops best mimics what Mother Nature had done for thousands of years, before the first sod was turned over and the first crop planted. 

Improving soil health by adopting new systems of management boosts soil productivity and thus, profitability, the agronomist explains. Farmers and ranchers across the nation who have stopped tillage and adopted the use of cover crops generally see a dramatic improvement in organic matter, which boosts water-holding capacity. Wind and water erosion is reduced, keeping valuable topsoil in place. Most importantly, crop residues and living roots feed soil bacteria, microbes, fungi and earthworms - the biology that helps create organic plant foods. 

Adopting no-till is not enough. 

"No-till won't work without cover crops," he says. Cover crop mixes produce roots that penetrate the soil layers. Earthworms and other soil creates create similar nutrient-rich channels. Cash crops take the path of least resistance and follow these pathways, deep into the soil profile. Add livestock to help cycle nutrients. All this action boosts soil organic matter, generating pores and aggregates and creating healthier soils. It's all part of the natural ecosystem, just like when bison used to roam the prairie, Archuleta says. 

"Soils and plants are nature's air conditioning system," he explains. "You have to feed these microbes all the time." 

Archuleta says farmers who adopt diversity in crop rotation, cover crop selection and add livestock to this cropping system find new ways to be profitable. But it takes a lot of effort to try - and stick with - new ways of thinking. 

"All farmers have something in common: the soil. You will have to learn how to be a student and understand soils. If you want to go broke, mimic your neighbor. If you want to make money, mimic Mother Nature," he says. 

Momentum for the recent soil health movement comes from farmers who were desperate. Farmers, he notes, take all the risk of producing food and fiber, while suppliers, processors and landlords make a majority of the money.

"Our farmers worked thousands of hours out of desperation and were still losing money," he explains. "Everybody is making money off of you. But I believe the money should go to you.

"I want you to sign the back of the check. Not the front," Archuleta adds.

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