It’s hard to believe that no-till and cover crops are still a strange concept to farmers, even after all the positive news there has been about it. Even after 30 years of increased popularity, less than 10 percent of Midwest farmers are active users of this revolutionary practice.
Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer since the 1970s, said he first looked into no-till in the early 1980s, trying to slow down the erosion on his acreage. He said in a recent interview that the practice did slow down erosion, especially after he began using cover crops.After three years, he also noticed that the soil began to “mellow out,” meaning the infiltration of rain water increased, the organic matter was more evident and the microbiology in the soil improved.
In 1995, when cover crops first began to emerge, thanks in part to the Oregon ryegrass seed growers (and Mike Plumer at the Univ. of Illinois Extension), Groff began working with Dr. Ray Weil, a Univ. of Maryland professor of agriculture and natural resources. Groff and Weil partnered on research on cover crops. In the fourth year, Pennsylvania experienced a drought and Groff noticed that corn yield on acres planted in cover crops got 28 bushels more than adjacent fields with no cover crops. That was what convinced him…the boost in yield because of healthier soil.
“You couldn’t pay me to NOT plant cover crops,” Groff said.
But, to go back to erosion for a moment. In the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, with John Kempf, the host described just how devastating erosion is for healthy crops. NRCS calculated that, on average, farmland in Iowa loses two pounds of topsoil every year for every pound of grain harvested!
Put another way, Groff said, every 1/4 pound hamburger represents four pounds of of topsoil lost to erosion!
Dust storms in Midwest, in addition to stripping topsoil from productive agricultural acreage, also causes fatalities due to poor visibility on roads.
Later in the podcast, Groff said that when he thinks about soil health, it’s not so much about a problem with erosion but a problem with infiltration. In other words, cover crops dramatically increase the soil’s ability to absorb water instead of it washing off the surface and removing topsoil with it.
He also said that soil health is not so much an issue with fertility as with microbial health. He said that if you have something growing in the field all year, with cover crops in the wintertime, the bacterial and microorganisms that rely on stable soil (untilled) with lots of organic matter. So, if the microbial health is there, the soil quality will be there as well.