Protecting and Improving Soil with No-Till and Cover Crops

Soil Health Recommendations from the National No-Tillage Conference.

Ralph Upton Jr. farms 1,800 acres near Springerton, Illinois, and has been no-tilling on his operation since the 1980s. But land in southern Illinois poses challenges due to its restrictive fragipan soils. Upton Jr. fights poor drainage, low water infiltration, short-term droughts, and susceptibility to erosion while trying to grow corn, soybeans, and wheat.

To improve the soil’s qualities for crop production, Upton Jr. has always acted with a long-term plan in mind and embraced opportunities to experiment with management practices. At the Annual No-Tillage Conference in St. Louis this year, he shares with farmers the challenges and successes he has found with the combination of continuous no-till and cover crops.

In the early 1990s, Upton Jr. secured a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Grant to implement cover crops on his long-term no-till fields, hoping to improve the soil structure. And he’s been doing so ever since.

Today, Upton Jr. plants hairy vetch planted into wheat and annual ryegrass after soybeans. He began experimenting with ryegrass as a cover crop in 1997 when the Oregon Ryegrass Commission partnered with him to prove out ryegrass as a potentially beneficial cover crop. Upton Jr. says, “In the very beginning, the Commission brought 20 to 25 varieties of ryegrass, but in the first winter, only three grew successfully. In the end, we found that if we plant corn and beans into ryegrass, it doesn’t hurt our yield.”

Over time, the ryegrass on Upton Jr.’s farm increased in rooting depth to between 17 to 25 inches deep. That has allowed the corn and soybean roots to follow the ryegrass root channels, reaching subsoil moisture and nutrients they need to grow successfully. He’s also measured an increase in organic material in his soils from a level of 0.8 to 2.9, and he’s seen more weed control than ever from the cover on the ground.

To further prove the benefits of cover crops on no-till fields, Upton Jr. has implemented a cover crop strip trial on a field that has been no-till but has never had a cover crop planted. He plants 80-foot wide strips of cover crops and in 2017, calculated a +29-bushel-per-acre difference in corn.

Upton Jr. recommends being purposeful with soil health practices. “When I start out in the fall, I want the rye out there so it will give erosion control. Also, I know that with rye in the cover crop, the hairy vetch will survive the winter and will help dry the ground out. I always try to have a reason for the cover crop I plant,” he says.

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