Switching from conventional tillage

Switching from conventional tillage to no-till farming takes planning. It could affect a farmer’s soil in the first year or two, says NRCS conservationist Michael Henderson.

Anew growing season means many farmers may be implementing new practices into their operations. When it comes to making those switches it’s important to know some of the possible side effects.

With many farmers moving toward new conservation practices to help the health of their soil, Michael Henderson, an NRCS resource conservationist, said some may need more planning than others.

That’s why Henderson said making small shifts over time may be the best practice.

“We try to push to try something new on some of your acres,” Henderson said. “You don’t have to do the whole farm, but try something different every year. If you never try anything different, you are never going to get anywhere.”

He cited one of the more heavily promoted conservation tactics, switching from conventional tillage to no-till farming, as one to prepare for. It could affect a farmer’s soil in the first year or two.

“If you do it abruptly, it’s like biologic shock,” Henderson said. “You shock that system and the biology hasn’t been able to recover to develop a high enough population. That can mess up the nutrient system a little bit.

“If you switch from till to no-till in a corn year, we’ve seen some yield drag, unless you can understand the nutrient cycling and spoon feed that corn a little nutrition to get it over that hump.”

He suggests switching to no-till during a soybean year, noting they tend to be resilient and typically don’t suffer significant yield loss in the first year.

Even better, he suggested following a corn crop with a cover crop, then a first year of no-till soybeans, following with another cover crop before the first year of no-till corn.

When Henderson switched his own farm to a no-till operation, he said it was initially hard to get used to. With social pressures and traditions deeply rooted, he had to take a moment to make sure he was doing the right thing.

“Hopping over that last hill, driving the tractor with the planter and seeing that field still with standing corn stalks, I nearly got physically ill with that stress level of ‘what am I doing?’” he said. “It was the unknown of ‘this is not normal, this isn’t the way you are supposed to do it.’ After that first couple of rounds, I gained a bit better confidence and better understanding and after that point away we went.”

The introduction of cover crops, particularly cereal rye, is also a popular practice across the state, he said, due to its soil benefits.

“(Cereal rye) is very winter-hardy,” he said. “You can abuse it and it will still be there. In Iowa’s typical corn-soybean rotation, we have a very short window to get anything growing that is not winter-hardy. … You can manage it to the point you will get benefits.”

By taking care of the biological health of the soil, farmers will see improvement on the surface with reduced erosion, sealing and crusting during rain storms and drought.

“It’s kind of fascinating to me that the same principles work for both conditions, as far as maintaining aggregate stability within that soil,” he said. “If we maintain that, we can maintain the internal drainage and increase the amount of available holding capacity for water in that soil.”