Growers understand that no-till has a favorable impact on soil management. It’s due to the many interconnections between tillage, cropping practices, fertilizer, soil amendments and other soil treatments that end up boosting your yields.
Jill Clapperton says placement and incorporation of crop residues can have either a good or bad impact on the development of the soil organisms responsible for cycling nutrients. In addition, the placement of residues affects soil surface temperature, rate of evaporation, water content, nutrient loading and the actual rate of plant decay.
The consultant from Florence, Mont., and a rhizosphere ecologist at the Lethbridge Research Center in Lethbridge, Alberta, says tillage affects soil porosity and residue placement. The highly popular speaker at several National No-Tillage Conferences says porosity determines the amount of air and water that your soils can hold. Tillage collapses the pores and tunnels built by underground creatures and changes the soil’s water-holding, gas and nutrient-exchange capacities.
Clapperton says no-tilling reduces soil disturbance, increases organic-matter content, improves soil structure, reduces soil temperature swings and allows soils to catch and hold more moisture. Since no-tilled soils are more biologically active and diverse, they have higher nutrient-loading capacities, gradually release nutrients and offer better soil structure than with extensive tillage.
No-till can also dramatically increase the population and diversity of your underground creatures that feed on fungi. No-till crop residue is primarily decomposed by fungal feeding mites that accumulate and use nitrogen before releasing the rest of this nutrient into the soil.
Clapperton says no-till and rotations that include perennial crops or pasture recover faster after droughts, floods or excessive tillage. Underground species increase rapidly and there is more species diversity with no-till. Increased levels of soil organic matter and nitrogen recycle faster than with conventional tillage.
Clapperton says creating a favorable soil habitat is the first step in managing soil biological properties for long-term soil quality and productivity. This includes practices that reduce soil disturbance, managing weeds and diseases with crop rotations, adding crops to the rotation, underseeding and using high-quality compost and manure.
As an example, she says unstructured soils with low organic-matter content that have fine aggregates or clay within the plow layer need 3 to 5 years to build the biological properties that can improve soil structure and stability.
CRP Vs. No-Till
Clapperton says it’s better to transition into no-till after a 2- to 5-year perennial crop or pasture phase. This means no-tilling would be an ideal way to bring Conservation Reserve Program acres back into production. It also leads to less fuel needs, less tractor hours and more time for managing the soil’s biological activity.