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Continuous No-Till for Soil Health

No-till is a powerful tool to combat erosion. It increases residue cover and creates firmer soil and better soil structure. No-till reduces erosion by more Aggregate Stabilitythan 80 percent versus chisel plowing in a corn-soybean rotation where crop residue is left after harvest. Even if some crop residues are removed in this rotation, soil erosion is still reduced more than 70 percent by using no-till. In continuous silage corn, the addition of a cover crop can decrease erosion by as much as 70 percent, whereas the removal of soybean residue can increase erosion by as much as 25 percent.

Instead of addressing soil erosion and soil degradation, there is a need to focus on building soils. Keeping growing crops on the landscape throughout the year, including cover crops with continuous no-till, can reduce soil erosion to very low levels. The soil building process becomes possible when soil loss is reduced to levels not reflected in current erosion prediction models.

Because it takes yearsBecause it takes years to improve soil health, it is important that no-till is practiced continuously. Even one year of tillage can have a dramatic negative impact on soil health. A research study in central Pennsylvania showed the positive effect continuous no-till has on soil tilth. Soil aggregate stability in the soil surface of continuous no-till was 100 percent greater than in moldboard plow, 61 percent greater than in chisel/disk, and 25 percent greater than in short-term no-till (See figure to the right).

Continuous no-till is defined as the planting of all crops without the use of any prior tillage. The no-till planter or drill accurately places the desired crop seed at the proper depth while providing good seed-to-soil contact. Planters and drills may or may not use coulters. They may be equipped with disk fertilizer openers to properly place plant nutrients. Shallow disk injection of manure or fertilizer is also considered to be consistent with continuous no-till planting. However, a focus on equipment would be self-defeating, no matter how important it is.

Soil aggregate stability is a measure of soil structure. Soil structure is the manner in which soil particles (sand, silt and clay) are arranged and connected. In a healthy soil, the sand, silt, and clay particles are loosely connected, with plenty of pore spaces between them for water movement, aeration, root penetration, and biological activity to take place. To learn more about these important substances that hold the particles together, click here!