In the 40 years I’ve been tracking no-till, soil biology has never received as much attention as it does today. As no-tillers refine their systems, more are recognizing the importance of doing a better job of managing the millions of critters living under the soil surface.

During a panel discussion at the recent 30th anniversary celebration of the Conservation Technology Information Center, the increased value of soil biology was mentioned numerous times.

Start With The Soil

As no-tillers become more efficient, Jerry Hatfield says, taking a closer look at soil biology will be critical to boosting efficiency. The director of the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Iowa, says farmers will also have to consider how increasing climate variability will affect their soil management decisions.

A speaker at the upcoming 2013 National No-Tillage Conference, Hatfield described a 2012 project that produced 290 bushels per acre of corn in a simulated Iowa fence row — despite the hot, dry growing conditions. This research demonstrated the value of not using practices that can influence underground soil biology.

Hatfield says the key is fitting all the pieces of the no-till puzzle together. “There are a lot of different pieces to today’s technology, but we haven’t yet figured out how to make it all work together effectively,” he says. “Yet it’s not so much new technology that we still need, but better ways of putting it all together.”

Underground Livestock

Dan DeSutter became interested early in his farming career in managing what was living below the ground. As a result, the Attica, Ind., no-tiller wants a crop or cover crop growing in his fields throughout the year so the millions of microbes found in the soil are never starving.

He maintains that every acre of healthy agricultural soil contains tons of fungi, bacteria and organic matter that lead to higher crop production. “We already have livestock on the farm,” he noted. “It’s just that they’re located underground.”

DeSutter has found a 2% increase in organic matter is worth $40 to $50 per acre in reduced input costs. “When we focus on organic matter, then everything else comes together,” he says. “This includes providing drainage so the microbes can breathe and do their job.”

DeSutter has managed his underground livestock so effectively that manure the primary source of fertility in his no-till operation.

Time For Action?

Some conservation leaders say it may be time for setting a national standard for improving organic matter. This could be similar to the equation indicating the maximum annual soil loss allowed on a particular type of soil to encourage future agricultural productivity. Many no-tillers are already relying on effective management of their underground critters to trim nutrient costs while boosting yields and crop returns while improving soil quality.