Nitrogen’s Dirty Little Secret

As some farmers switch back to other tillage systems, the truth is that patience and persistence would have paid off with soil nitrogen in a big way with the continued use of no-till.

There's no doubt about it. When you look at the numbers, some farmers, it seems, are parking their no-till equipment and once again emerging from the sheds with the very discs and plows they’d sworn off only a couple of years ago.
What’s even more scary is that they think they’re doing the right thing. “The last few years in Iowa alone, I’ve noticed an extensive amount of soybean ground being worked in the fall,” says Dean Martens, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Tillage Laboratory in Ames, Iowa.
“In fact, the combine’s not even off the field and they’re already coming right through with the disc and the chisel and tilling that ground. Soybean ground is rather erosive to begin with, so why would they till?
“It has to do with nitrogen and speeding the residue and organic matter mineralization, so that soluble nitrogen is there next spring when the corn plant is emerging.”
This idea that tilling the ground is the best thing for nitrogen management is just plain malarkey, maintains Martens. And to prove it, he’s outlined some ideas on how to work with the needs of the growing plants early in the season to best suit their nitrogen needs.

What Changes?

Moving from conventional to no-till in the first place has some major effects on the makeup of your soil. But the biggest one, Martens explains, are the dynamics of carbon and nitrogen cycling.
“Instead of turning the residue into the soil, you…
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