Earlier this month, about 170 people attended the Farming Evolution no-till conference in Holyoke, Colo., where attendees covered a number of topics related to no-till practices, cover cropping and soil health principles.

Staff from the NRCS office in Holyoke was kind enough to share some of the insights from the two-day event:

1. Be Consistent. Choosing where and how to soil sample isn’t so difficult, but it does depend on what you want to know, says Clark Harshbarger, resource soil scientist for the NRCS office in Greeley, Colo. Stay with the same time of year and pattern so results can be compared, and talk with the lab you intend to use.

2. Think ‘Small.’ Farmers should think of the soil as a habitat with a variety of sizes and types of animals, says Jill Clapperton, the principal scientist and co-founder of Rhizoterra Inc. Earthworms are the most visible to the naked eye, but much of soil life is comprised of tiny critters visible only in a microscope, and they have complex predator/prey and habitat relationships, she says. And, just like animals above the soil, soil animals are sensitive to disturbance. 

3. Back to Basics. No-tillers need their planter or drill to do four things, says University of Nebraska ag engineer Paul Jasa: Handle residue, penetrate the soil to the desired seeding depth, provide seed-to-soil contact and close the seed slot. “Take the stuff off of your drill and add weight, 500 pounds per row,” he says.

4. Keep Your Water. Organic matter is drought insurance for your soil. Soil with 1% organic matter will hold 27,000 gallons of water in the top 6 inches of soil. With 3.5% organic matter, soil will hold 94,500 gallons of water. Most fields today range from 1-3% organic matter.

5. Park the Iron. Almena, Kan., no-tiller Michael Thompson talked about the family’s need to adopt no-till because operations needed to change for him to return to the farm. But adopting no-till alone didn’t fix the problem. “We had to change how we viewed our soil,” he says, adding that they started thinking about keeping a living root in the soil as much as possible. Then they added livestock.

In the early 1990s, organic-matter levels on Thompson’s farm was 1% or less and he had erosion problems. Today, organic matter is 3.6%, erosion is a thing of the past and he’s reduced chemical costs by 19% and nitrogen costs by 27%.

6. Stay Green. Haxtun, Colo., no-tiller John Heermann says the results of a rain simulator demonstration by the NRCS sold him on no-till. “Seeing the dry, tilled soil and the wet no-tilled soil when those trays were dumped told me I had to change,” Heermann says. “My goal is to have a living root in the soil at all times.”

7. Don’t Bake the Soil. Many speakers made the point that soil temperature determines soil water availability, and that plant cover serves as a heat shield. When the soil is 70 F, 100% of the moisture is used for growth. When soil reaches 100 F, 15% of the moisture is used for growth.  At 140 F most soil bacteria are dead.

8. Farming Evolves. Herndon, Kan., no-tiller Dietrich Kastens says his family’s journey into no-till was challenging and rewarding.

“For us, the 1990s were all about improving water use efficiency,” Kastens says. “The 2000s were all about finding the equipment to move to 100% no till. The early 2010s were still about fixing problems, but also about looking at the whole ‘system’ rather than at specific pieces. The late 2010s will be about soil health, and determining how to improve it while remaining profitable in the short run.

“We know we are doing the right thing by using no-till,” he adds. “We’re not using cover crops yet, but we are certainly looking at them.”

You can watch and listen to the Farming Evolution recording online by going to www.barnmedia.net and typing “Farming Evolution 2016” in the search window.

Farming Evolution 2016 was hosted by the Haxtun, Sedgwick, West Greeley and Yuma County conservation districts in Colorado and the Upper Republican NRD in Nebraska, and support by the Colorado State Conservation Board, Phillips County Pheasants Forever and the NRCS.