No Till Notes - “Improving Our Productivity”

By Mark Watson, Panhandle No-till Educator 

Last week I gave an example of what rancher/farmer Gabe Brown, from Bismarck, North Dakota has accomplished on his operation by focusing his efforts on soil health. Over the past 15 years, Gabe has dramatically improved the health of his soil. This improved soil health has lowered his cost of production and improved the profitability of his operation considerably.

This path towards soil health has been cleared by people like Gabe and has given us a blue print of how we can begin improving the health and performance of the soils we work with in our area. I will caution you that this improvement in soil health takes time, several years, of dedication and commitment to a system that will gradually repair the damage done to our soils through some of our agricultural practices.

I think we need to take a hard look at where we are in this region with regards to soil health. The High Plains region has been a predominantly winter wheat/summer fallow cropping system for decades. This system was tillage intensive for most of that time period. Recently the summer fallow portion of this system has traded a portion of the tillage for herbicides to control weeds.

This long term winter wheat/summer fallow has gone against every rule there is for maintaining or improving soil health. This production system has led to reduced organic matter levels in the soil. This system has long periods of no living roots growing in the soil which feed soil microbes so we have low levels of the very soil microbes that enhance the performance of healthy soil.

The winter wheat/summer fallow system has encouraged large amounts of wind and water driven soil erosion. We have lost tons of topsoil over the years utilizing this system of crop production. This has led to a long term degradation of the soil to the point where we now have what I would consider to be very poor soil in terms of soil health. The good news is we can begin to improve the health of our soils and our profitability by taking the first steps towards improving soil health.

The first step which is viewed as a big one by some producers is to change from a winter wheat /summer fallow production system to a continuous no till crop production system. Eliminating tillage is essential for the first step in improved soil health. Tillage destroys soil aggregation and soil structure which are the building blocks for improved soil health. Tillage also destroys the homes for soil microbes which limits the diversity and populations of these microbes.

I have tested for soil microbe populations in a winter wheat/summer fallow system and compared it to our long term no till crop production system on two occasions using two different testing procedures.

I have tested for soil microbes utilizing Ward Laboratories in Kearney, Nebraska to test for soil microbes using both a PFLA and Haney soil microbe testing procedure. Both tests have shown reduced levels of soil microbes and diversity of soil microbes when comparing winter wheat/summer fallow to long term continuous no till system of crop production.

The next step in improving soil health beyond switching to a no till production system is to diversify the cropping rotation. Some producers feel they have switched to no till by adopting a winter wheat/chemical summer fallow rotation. They have simply traded herbicides for tillage.

One of the many problems with a winter wheat/chemical fallow system is the long period of no living roots being grown in the soil. If we are truly going to improve the health of our soil, an important factor is to have a living root growing in the soil as much as possible. These living roots with previous crop’s residues left on the soil surface feed the soil microbes which begin restoring soil health. A living plant growing under a no till production system allows for the path to soil health to begin. Improved soil health starts when previous crop residue remains on the soil surface and a living plant with living roots grows in the soil for as much time as possible during the growing season.

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