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Benefits of No-Till and Cover Crops: Seeing is Believing

By iwest | 10:42 AM, 11/04/2014

Bill Spurley hasn’t tilled this Linden-area farm for the past decade, and the benefits of this low-impact approach were clearly visible to those who had a unique look at his land, from four feet underground.

NRCS, county land conservation and DNR staff were able to stand in a trench dug for an in-field healthy soil training and see a below-ground slice of Mark Caygill's property where Spurley planted cover crops this past August. The day was part of the Conservation Professional Training Program’s series of healthy soils courses.

Placing white golf tees in the dirt, CPTP instructor Jamie Patton, a UW Extension agent, highlighted points of interest. "Notice the rich brown color of the organic matter in the first four inches of top soil, the way the white roots from the winter rye have grown through the soil, traveling close to three feet already. Also notice the lack of an abrupt, straight line delineating the topsoil from the subsoil. Abrupt changes in color often occur at the depth of tillage. This more natural gradation from dark to light is likely the result of the farmer’s conversion to no-till and cover crops several years ago. Plant roots and biology are helping to improve soil health and function,” explained Patton.

As the morning fog dissipated, the soil’s ecosystem sprang to life throughout the glistening walls. Worms were busy creating channels for the water to flow deeper into the ground, leaving their waste behind as feed for the well-established roots.

“Research has shown forty percent of the carbon plants capture through photosynthesis is leaked into the soil,” said Patton, “so cover crops are a great way to feed soil microbes over the winter months.”

Gene Schriefer, UWEX Agricultural Agent added, “Courses like this are a great resource because you can actually see what’s happening after poking around in the pit.” Many of the participants agreed and said the day was a great addition for their online soil health courses.


Ingrid West is an outreach specialist at UW Extension


Producers: We want to hear from you. What cover crops will you have in the ground this winter?