Passionate about no-till, Ray Archuleta likes to remind producers that what makes a successful no-till system are the things you don’t necessarily see on the ground.

“The fertility of our soil is in the structure of it,” says the conservation agronomist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, calling the structure of no-till soil “incredible.”

It all begins with “microaggregates,” which Archuleta says act as a glue to keep soil together. With tillage, he says, microaggregates get disrupted, leading to a system that can’t absorb water and can’t handle carbon as well.

“We don’t have a runoff problem. We have an infiltration problem,” he says. “Our job is to maintain that the soil pore system is open.”

It’s not just in rural areas, Archuleta says. In urban areas, runoff is a big problem because topsoil is removed in the building of subdivisions and development.

With so much fertilizer being put on the ground to feed grass, large rain events usually lead to a lot of runoff, which in turn harms waterways further down the line, such as the Chesapeake Bay.

To keep microbes — or workers, as he calls them — doing their jobs in the soil, they have to be “fed.” To that end, Archuleta says manure makes a great meal.

“Manure is awesome because it’s feed for the microbes,” he says. “Microbes break it down to build the soil structure. This increases water-holding capacity and increases infiltration.”

It’s not perfect, though. Manure contains a lot of phosphorus and potassium, which he says can create an imbalance in the soil system.

Rotating crops can increase diversity, which benefits the system, Archuleta adds.