WHEN GROWERS and educators talk about soil health, it’s usually about combining the benefits of no-till, crop rotations and cover crops
While a big fan of no-till, Martin Entz places more emphasis on developing a diverse crop rotation than on picking a tillage system. The western Canadian plant scientist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg says no-till enthusiasts have long proclaimed that they have healthier soils than growers who till the land. Their argument is based on the idea that tillage destroys soil particle aggregates and hinders biological activity.
Tillage Myths. Admitting his ideas are controversial, Entz argues that the perception that tillage destroys soil is incorrect. Even so, he admits no-tilled soils have better soil structure, better nutrient cycling and increase organic matter.
In an article in Canada’s Western Producer magazine, Entz points out that eliminating tillage isn’t necessary to have healthy soils. He’s convinced a diverse crop rotation makes a greater contribution to productive soils than no-till under many western Canadian conditions. While believing in the merits of no-till, he says improving carbon sequestration and soil biology are also important in building soil quality.
When it comes to sequestering carbon, Ontario scientists at the University of Guelph found levels of organic carbon in the entire soil profile were similar in both no-tilled and conventionally-tilled fields. However the top layer of no-tilled soil contained more carbon and had superior soil properties.
Based on his long-time work with organic producers, Entz argues that growers who follow a diverse crop rotation that includes perennials and cover crops could end up with healthier soils than growers who have simply no-tilled for decades.
Yet it’s not just no-tillers who believe no-till is the key soil health ingredient. NRCS research in Pennsylvania shows soil aggregate stability on the soil surface of continuous no-till fields was 100% greater than with moldboard plowing, 61% greater than with a chisel/disc system and 25% greater than in short-term no-tilled fields.
No-Till Is Best. In a recent South Dakota Soil Health Coalition study, 31% of farmers using soil health practices reported increased profitability compared to only 12% of conventional tillage farmers who hadn’t invested in soil health practices. Growers using no-till, diverse cropping rotations and cover crops also reported less stress, greater farming satisfaction and greater optimism about the future of farming.
You’ll be well ahead of other growers in terms of profitability by combining no-till with seeding cover crops and adding other crops to more traditional rotations. And as the South Dakota study points out, happier days are ahead for growers who are already no-tilling as a way to improve their soils.