Busting The ‘Colder, Wetter’ Myth With No-Till, Cover Crops

Scenarios in Indiana and Wisconsin seem to question the assumption that no-tilled fields with cover crops are slower to warm up and dry out than conventionally farmed soils.

One challenge often cited about adopting no-till and cover crops in colder climates is that no-tilled fields can be colder and wetter than conventionally tilled fields, potentially causing problems with timely planting and seedling emergence. But recent research and field observations among ag experts and no-tillers is poking holes in that theory. Earlier this year, Legacy Seeds cover crop manager Dave Robison asked his brother Don, to figure out if cover crops that survive the winter keep soils colder in the spring than farm ground tilled in the fall. Trials were conducted on their farm in Greenwood, Ind., in April and May. One field was chisel-plowed the previous fall, and another was no-tilled without cover crops — but has been no-tilled continuously for 30 years. A third plot was a no-tilled field with a radish-annual ryegrass cover crop. A lawn on the farm was also part of the research.

The Setup

Don, who is also the farm business advisor for Beck’s Hybrids in Atlanta, Ind., took soil temperature and soil-moisture readings to test the “colder and wetter” theory. The soil type in the lawn was a Miami silt loam, while the research fields were Crosby silt loam. The no-tilled field without cover crops had a compaction layer at around 3 inches deep, according to compaction tests taken in 2012. During a cool, wet spring this year, the conventionally tilled field didn’t live up the reputation of being warmer, Don says. Data revealed no-tilled soils with covers were consistently warmer, or…

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John Dobberstein

John Dobberstein is senior editor of No-Till Farmer magazine and the e-newsletter Dryland No-TillerHe previously covered agriculture for the Tulsa World and worked for daily newspapers in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Joseph, Mich. He graduated with a B.A. in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University.

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