No-Till Soil Management: Bringing Soils to Life

25 Oct, 2012

by Twilight Greenaway, via

Rolling Cover Crops-Daniel Sullivan by The Rodale InstituteIn the 1990s, Gail Fuller stopped tilling his Kansas farm. He and his brother had inherited the farm and he wanted to move away from the way they’d been doing things in the 1970s and ’80s.

“I thought that once you got to no-till that was the answer. But I didn’t change my management practices, so no-till actually failed,” he recalls. “We were doing miserably by the early 2000s.”

Farmers like Fuller use the term “soil management” a lot, and the truth is it means different things on different farms. But when he compares the way he’s farming today to what he was doing 10 years ago, it’s not hard to understand what he means.

“We didn’t rotate our crops, we didn’t have enough crop residue in the soil, our erosion was high, our yields weren’t increasing, and our herbicide was up. We were on the verge of bankruptcy.”

That part about herbicide is important. You see, most conventional corn and soy farmers till—or break up—their soil on a large scale because it helps control the weeds. So it has become common to use more weed killer when you stop tilling. (The practice has been dubbed “chemical no-till” and it’s part of what has made the recent conversation about farm soil controversial.)

Fuller started planting cover crops—crops that, like their name implies, provide a cover to stop the soil from eroding between food crops, and provide a natural source of nutrients as well—and he radically upped the number of grains he grew. In addition to corn and soy, the farmer now grows both winter and spring wheat, winter barley, winter triticale, canola, sunflower, safflower, flax, oats, and peas, to name a few.

“We try to have something growing 24-seven, 365 days a year. I want a living root in the ground at all times.”

In the larger sense, Fuller became a student of his own soil. And to hear him talk about it is oddly inspiring—even for a city girl who feels lucky if the tomatoes in her backyard don’t die prematurely.

When he first started this process, Fuller says his soil contained only around 1.5 to 2 percent organic matter (the living part of the soil, made up largely of decayed plant material). Now it ranges from 3.5 to 6 percent. “The native grasslands in this part of the country apparently had 6 to 7 percent, but I believe we can go higher than that,” he says.

Why does organic matter in soil, um, matter so much? For one, it makes the soil look different; it’s usually darker, spongier, and full of earthworms. Healthy soil also tends to make crops less vulnerable to pests. And, perhaps most importantly, soil with a lot of organic matter holds a more moisture. This helps farms remain more resilient through both droughts and floods—a huge variable, because while summer may be long gone, in many states, drought is stubbornly staying put.

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