Winning combo: No-till & cover crops

  • 01

    Two dozen farmers from Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota participated in the annual "Points North Tour" from No-till on the Plains in August. The three-day tour made several stops in Nebraska and South Dakota to teach no-till farmers the finer points of using no-till cover crops, including crop rotation, soil structure, cover crops and water use efficiency.

  • 02

    At Green Cover Seed near Bladen, Nebraska, brothers Keith and Brian Berns planted corn into standing rye stubble in July, pairing the short-season corn with buckwheat, cowpeas and soybeans to not only fix nitrogen, but also build soil health and provide excellent grazing after the corn is harvested this fall.

  • 03

    Buckwheat is a great crop in any cover crop blend, according to Keith Berns. Buckwheat is not terribly competitive, so it works well in a blend. It will take phosphorous from the soil, store it in plant material after the crop is terminated, and make it easily available to the next crop.

  • 04

    When planting a cover crop, be sure to use a blend, urges Keith Berns. He says a blend of species almost always results in greater growth and better weed control, than a single cover crop species.

  • 05

    Cover crops planted into winter wheat stubble can out-compete volunteer wheat seed, says Ray Ward, soil scientist and owner of Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Nebraska. Winter wheat seed remains dormant for six weeks after maturity; therefore an established cover crop will beat out those volunteers.

  • 06

    Producers who use no-till long-term begin to see improvements in soil quality, Ward says. The clod in this beaker of water has been submerged for more than 24 hours, yet maintains its structure. Note that the water does not disintegrate the clod; stable soil aggregates act like a sponge, absorbing precipitation and "banking" it for future use.

  • 07

    Dwayne Beck, research manager at Dakota Lakes Research Farm near Pierre, South Dakota, has dozens of ongoing research trials using no-till, crop rotation and cover crops, many of which have been in place since the farm was established in 1990. Beck believes cover crops are critical to long-term no-till success in that they break up disease, insect and weed cycles.

  • 08

    As a deep-rooted legume, alfalfa boosts soil microbial activity and increase soil porosity, adding to the soil's water-holding capacity. Beck planted alfalfa in spring, 2012 in this test plot of irrigated continuous corn. The alfalfa helps to "cycle" deep nutrients; i.e. roots dig for nutrients that are lost to most traditional crops, bring them to the soil surface and allow the next crop to use them after the alfalfa plants die down in the winter.

  • 09

    Oftentimes, small-seeded cover crops need to be planted shallow, and many seeders will "hairpin" wheat stubble, which results in less-than-ideal seed-to-soil contact. Dwayne Beck has better success by planting the seeds 1.5-inches deep, avoiding the hair-pinning issue, and raising the seeder's closing wheels off the ground. The result is improved seed-to-soil contact and assurance that the crop can get off to a strong start.

  • 10

    In any no-till system, a sprayer - self-propelled or pull-type - will pay off quicker than any other piece of equipment, says Kent Kinkler of Onida, South Dakota.

  • 11

    Gettysburg, South Dakota no-till farmer Ralph Holzwarth believes in no-disturbance, high-residue no-till. Therefore, he uses a Shelbourne stripper-header during wheat harvest to keep wheat residue standing. The stripper header captures snow and is easier to plant the next crop into, he says.

  • 12

    Holzwarth says residue distribution is critical to a successful no-till system. "We don't want any residue piled up, and we don't remove any residue," he says. A Shelbourne stripper header leaves residue standing erect, which is perfect to catch snow, yet leave straw manageable for planting the next spring.

  • 13

    Trying to put as much carbon into the soil as possible, Dan Forgey, agronomist at Cronin Farms near Gettysburg, South Dakota, has used cover crops since 2006. Forgey says many farmers are excellent at managing crops above ground, but paying attention to what's going on under the surface is just as important.

  • 14

    Teff grass planted into failed winter wheat will be put up as high-quality hay for the cowherd at Cronin Farms. Agronomist Dan Forgey says the teff grass will regrow; flax, oats and lentils will be planted into the green cover, providing residue for next spring's crops. Crude protein of teff grass hay ranges from 12 to 20, depending upon when it is harvested.

  • 15

    Great employees are vital to the success of Bieber Farms, Trail City, South Dakota. Owner Rick Bieber says: "I don't tell employees what to do; I tell them why we want them done a certain way. It gives our employees ownership in the farm operation."

  • 16

    There are a lot of companies that want to sell herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, and Kennebec, South Dakota farmer Mike Arnoldy says that these products are fine. By implementing a no-till system, however, Arnoldy limits the amount of product he has to buy. "Crop rotations are key. Better yields come from crop rotation and no-till."

  • 18

    "We try a lot of different rotations to take advantage of different situations," says Mike Arnoldy, in a field of chickpeas. "We use old chemical technology - such as 2,4-D, glyphosate and Banvel in milo - but we make it all work using crop rotations."

  • 19

    How do you know when soils are healthy? When you begin to see earthworms, which mix and aggregate soil, improve soil moisture infiltration and shred, mix and bury surface residue. Poor soils may have fewer than 50 earthworms per cubic yard; highly organic soil may contain more than 350 earthworms per cubic yard.

  • 20

    Healthy soils resemble the texture of a good cake, according to Ray Ward, owner of Ward Laboratories. A spade of healthy soil will crumble when massaged (rather than flake off in layers). Wormholes, worm castings and roots will be located throughout the slice of soil.

A group of farmers saw the latest in cover crops in no-till systems on a recent tour.

Read more about