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No-till Leads to Healthy Soil and Healthy Soil Leads to a Better Growing Season

Submitted By: Christy Morgan, Program Analyst with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Kentucky

Cox Farm No till Tobacco SomersetManagement techniques differ from farm to farm but landowners who understand the importance of healthy soil hold true to a few key principles.  The principles are minimizing disturbance, growing more plants in a rotation (biodiversity), keeping the soil covered and keeping a living root in the ground year-round.  Many of these landowners also apply a thin layer of animal waste to their fields if available. 

Farmers practicing these principles are maintaining or increasing production and improving their bottom lines. Over time the farmers who practice soil health become less dependent on inputs and more self sustainable.  To get started, they began with the very first principle of minimizing soil disturbance.

Tillage is the main cause of soil disturbance. In the minds of many, a freshly tilled field means it’s ready for the next planting.  But soil scientists can prove that tillage isn’t good.  When soil is tilled, the top several inches of the soil is disturbed. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recommends leaving the previous year’s crop residues on the soil surface as well as growing a cover crop between cash crops to provide more surface and subsurface biomass to improve soil health.  

Tillage destroys the soil’s pore space which is a critical part of how water gets into the soil (infiltration).  According to John Graham, Soil Health Specialist for NRCS, “When we till the soil, we destroy the soil aggregates creating a tighter soil where water infiltration is severely reduced and soil water storage for the plants is depleted.”  Instead of water going deep into the soil for the plant to use, the water runs off the soil surface taking valuable topsoil with it.

No-till is a conservation practice that can save on irrigation, labor and fuel costs. Studies show a producer can save at least 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre by changing from conventional tillage to no-till. It’s a sound investment for the environment and the farmer.

If you want more information on no-till or other soil health principles, visit our website at or contact your local USDA NRCS Service Center.  Find an office near you: