STRATEGIC COVERS. Pre-corn cover crops should trap nitrogen (N) in the fall and release N at the optimum time in the spring. The cereal rye/Austrian winter pea/crimson clover mix on the right is releasing N at the time of greatest need. A straight cereal rye cover crop (left) should be terminated at boot stage or earlier to reduce N tie-up.

Spring No-Till and Cover Crop Strategies for Building Soil Health

With a pivotal spring season ahead, understanding nutrient cycling is critical to developing a successful, resilient no-till system, says Barry Fisher.

While the benefits of soil health might seem intangible to some, NRCS soil scientist Barry Fisher is very clear about it.

“When we talk about soil health, we’re talking about improving the capacity of that soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans, no matter the weather conditions or circumstances,” he says. “It’s all about understanding that living ecosystem and working with the land instead of against it.”

For soil to be considered functional, Fisher says it needs to:

  • Cycle nutrients efficiently
  • Regulate water storage, drainage and flow
  • Support biodiversity and habitat for a variety of plants, animals and microorganisms
  • Maintain its porous structure to allow the passage of air and water while withstanding erosion
  • Filter out toxic compounds to protect the water and air.

With nearly four decades of working with producers in no-till and conventional systems under his belt, Fisher says improved soil health affects nutrient cycling and that a no-till system tends to be more biologically driven, the effects of which are most noticeable in the spring.

“Especially if you’re transitioning away from full-width tillage or adding cover crops into your rotation, you need to understand that some of the rules you played by before won’t apply in this new system,” he explained at the 2019 National No-Tillage Conference. “There are some key concepts regarding nutrient management and cover crop termination that are not real intuitive and can possibly bite you if you don’t know what’s going to happen in this…

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Julia gerlach web

Julia Gerlach

Julia Gerlach is the former Executive Editor of No-Till Farmer. She has a lengthy background in publishing and a longtime interest in gardening and mycology. She graduated with a B.A. in music and philosophy from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis.

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