no-till planting and cover crops

Using a combination of no-till planting and cover crops keeps living roots in the ground throughout much of the year and minimizes soil disturbance, all of which dramatically reduces erosion and improves soil health. 

Two things are for certain at every meeting about cover crops. First, researchers and experts will show the benefits of cover crops and no-tilling to prevent erosion and improve soil health. And then farmers will ask about the economics of the practice in the short- and long-term.

At the second annual online National Cover Crop Summit March 18-19, both those issues were addressed by ag economists, soil specialists and farmers using the practices.

Soil health professionals and farmers said most often the financial benefits come from saving on tillage, herbicides and other inputs, but it may take a few years of changed practices to see those benefits consistently.

Saving soil

The biggest direct cost to a farmer is land, so reducing soil erosion by using no-till and cover crops will help conserve that investment, Jim Hoorman, Extension educator at Ohio State University, said in his online presentation.

Zeb Winslow, a North Carolina farmer who grows corn, soybeans and cotton, likens land ownership to equipment investments. A farmer wouldn’t let an expensive tractor roll onto a neighbor’s farm and just accept the loss. Likewise, they don’t want their valuable top soil to slide onto to the neighbors’ land.

Winslow started transitioning his 800-acre family farm to no-till and cover crops in the late 1990s and 2000s.

“Land is our single largest expense. It is our factory,” he said.

In the Tar Heel State, cash crops cover the soil five months of the year. Without cover crops the rest of the time, soil is not improving, Winslow said.

On the economic side, he said cover crops help him reduce input costs — reducing field passes for tillage, saving fuel and lowering the need for pesticides and herbicides.

Going into green

In the early 2000s, Winslow started with a single-species cover crop, but he took a big leap in 2013 when he started planting corn directly into a green, multi-species cover crop on 40 acres.

Funding from the NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District led to the change in his practices. Their programs required that cover crops be terminated less than 14 days before planting. Previously he used a chemical burndown a month before planting.

That first year near planting time, the rye, vetch and clover mix was up to his waist.

“It looked like a jungle,” he said.

His dad wasn’t sure about planting into that, but they agreed Winslow would have one day to try to plant the corn into the green cover crop. If it didn’t work, he would do the burndown and plant that 40 acres after the rest.

It worked, and the pair decided “maybe we are on to something,” Winslow said.

Today they continue to plant into green cover crops, rolling them before planting. They keep learning how to do it better, he said.

“You have to learn to dance with it,” he said.

Winslow said switching to cover crops is “ego” versus “eco.” The “eco,” or economic decisions, means taking the whole system into account. The “ego” approach is to kill everything in the cornfield that isn’t corn.

“When you kill an organism you inherit its work,” Winslow said, quoting a mentor.

When all pests are killed, that includes beneficial pests such as pollinators.

“We don’t have to kill the entire system to grow corn,” he said.

Cover crops are also a weed suppressor. On bare soil, weeds pop up.

“Choose your green,” he said.

Hoorman quoted research showing that such a system can reduce the use of herbicides by one-third, or saving $8 to $15 per acre.

“Remember, uncontrolled weeds reduce yields as well,” he said.

Counting costs

Winslow estimated that with reduced tillage and spraying in his system, he cut fuel costs by about 35%. He pointed out a University of Kentucky farmer survey that showed reduced tillage and other cost savings amounted to about the same as the price of cover crop seed and the labor required for managing and planting the cover crop.

The added benefit is improved biology, he said. Organic matter makes a difference for the soil’s water retention — to what extent depends on the soil type, Hoorman said. In a year with drought, corn with cover crops yielded 10% more and soybeans yielded 7 bu./ acre more than in fields without cover crops, he said.

On choosing the best cover crop for the job, Hoorman said, “Cereal rye offers the biggest bang for the buck for soybeans.” For corn, he suggested trying legumes with a multi-species mix.

Both the North Carolina farmer and the Ohio soil health specialist advise farmers to start small as they make changes and learn what works best for their soils and their systems.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.