Terry Bachtold

Terry Bachtold of Strawn, Illinois, has been farming his entire life. He grew up with cattle and hogs along with an annual rotation of oats, soybeans, corn and hay.

He appreciates cover crops to naturally increase organic matter and values the return to the old ways via a shorter term, similar rotation system.

“We have come a long way in technology as far as nutrient management, but I think the next leap forward is going to be improving soil through practices like cover crops and no-till,” said Terry. “Organic matter is basically what holds the soil together. If you don’t have organic matter, you’re not going to raise a crop.”

Terry is also interested in cover crops because of their ability to suppress weeds and hold nitrogen for use by growing plants in the next crop year.

He’s hopeful that incorporating cover crops will reduce his commercial application of nitrogen, but only time—and research with the Soil Health Partnership—will tell.

“As you increase the organic matter, you also increase the amount of nitrogen as it decomposes from plants will release back naturally,” Terry explains. “Each one percent of organic matter is basically 20-30 pounds of nitrogen that’s available to the crop and gets released every year out of your soil.”

3 Ways Cover Crops Impact No-Till Success

No-till provides many benefits, including building soil structure, increasing water holding capacity and infiltration, increasing worm counts, in addition to reducing soil erosion.

Cover crops are a great tool to use in conjunction with  no-till to enhance soil health benefits.

Soil compaction 

Soil compaction can be an issue in any field, but sometimes compaction issues are more prevalent in no-till fields. Compaction problems in no-till fields often occur during the transitional years of no-till when the soil structure is being built but can easily be damaged. Compaction can occur when machinery is used in the field when the soil is not fit or dry enough, often these areas are concentrated on the end rows where multiple machinery passes are made. Compaction can also be present in no-till fields from the use of previous tillage practices, commonly referred to as “old plow layers”. In conventional tillage systems, tillage is consistently used over time to alleviate, in the short term, issues with compaction. In a no-till system, we have to use other methods to fix compaction issues. Cover crops can be used to alleviate soil compaction by using living roots to break up compaction layers. Deep-rooted cover crops such as turnips, radishes, and cereal rye can help break up old plow layers and alleviate other compaction areas across the field.

Enhanced soil microbiology 

No-till protects the soil and allows soil microbes to thrive in their habitat. Repeated tillage disturbs the soil and destroys the microbes habitat, causing them to put their energy into repairing and rebuilding themselves after every act of tillage. No-till preserves the soil microbes habitat, but to fully reap the benefits of soil microbes we need to stimulate them by keeping them “fed”. This is where the addition of cover crops can help. Cover crops provide a living root to the soil and act as a food source for soil microbes. The addition of cover crops stimulates the soil biology and helps soil microbes produce substances like glomalin, which act as “biological glues” to help hold soil particles together and improve soil structure. The creation of these “biological glues”, through the use of cover crops, is what helps improve soil structure faster than just using no-till by itself. It’s important to remember, certain crop species and cover crops species have different associations with different microbes in the soil. Try to keep a diverse amount of crops and cover crops in the soil to keep the microbiology consistently stimulated throughout the year.

Soil structure

Soil structure is created by using practices such as no-till and cover crops. Soil structure can be built faster by using multiple soil health practices at one time. Think of it visually. It’s like a never ending circle with improved soil structure as the end goal. If you practice no-till along with cover crops, you gain soil biology, reduce compaction, and therefore, obtain greater soil structure. Improved soil structure then results in better water infiltration and greater water holding capacity. When used together, cover crops can make the transition to no-till easier than using no-till by itself.

Visit our resource library to learn more about cover crops.

5 Things to Consider About No-Till

No-till can greatly impact soil health by building soil structure, increasing water holding capacity and infiltration, increasing worm counts, in addition to reducing soil erosion.

However, planning ahead is necessary to make the practice successful. Five things that you want to consider before making the switch to no-till include:

Weed control

Tillage is no longer an option for weed control, so you’ll have to mainly rely on herbicides to control weeds. This will require you to use burndown herbicides with your pre-emergent herbicide. The burndown herbicide will terminate any weeds that are present and growing while the pre-emergent herbicide will terminate any weeds before they emerge. In order to have successful weed control in a no-till system, you’ll need to make sure to burndown weeds early in the spring when they are small and actively growing. It’s also important to remember that some weeds will become more prevalent in a no-till system and they may be weeds you aren’t used to controlling. For example, winter annuals, such as marestail, are very common in no-till systems but aren’t easily seen in conventional till systems. Weeds like marestail require early burndown applications in the spring to ensure good weed control. 

Planter setup

You will be planting into a different environment when no-tilling. When you run a tillage tool, it creates the seedbed and then the planter focuses on placing the seed. In a no-till system, you’re creating the seedbed and planting into it at the same time. Proper planter set-up is needed to make sure you have a successful crop establishment.  You may need to replace what you have or add specialized planter parts such as, closing wheels, opening disks, gauge wheels, row cleaners, etc. that are created for a no-till system. It’s important to take the time in the winter and evaluate your planter setup to determine if changes will need to be made.

Fertilizer placement

In a full tillage system, fertilizer gets incorporated into the ground. With no-till, broadcasted fertilizer gets worked into the ground with moisture. Producers can choose to select different fertilizer sources and methods of placement to ensure adequate nutrient availability to the growing crop. Adding starter fertilizer to your planter is an option to make sure nutrients are available to growing seedlings. Fertilizer placement is something you should consider as you transition to no-till but changing your fertilizer program is not required.

Residue management

Consider how you are going to manage residue in a no-till system. With tillage, the residue is chopped up and sometimes gone when planting. In no-till, the residue remains, sometimes making the soil colder and wetter. Managing residue actually starts at harvest. Having your combine adjusted to ensure a uniform size and distribution of residue and avoiding the use of a chopping corn head are just a few things that should be considered.

Seed selection

It’s a good idea to start with soybeans first when looking to make the switch to no-till. Soybeans will be more resilient as you work to make the transition. However, when you make the move to no-tilling corn, select hybrids with higher emergence and vigor scores. Hybrids with higher emergence and vigor scores will have the ability to get out of the ground and through residue quicker, especially under cooler and wetter soil conditions.

No-till is a management practice that takes years to fully implement and there is a learning curve to this new management practice. Get more insights on how to more smoothly transition to no-till from a first-time no-tiller.

Transitioning to No-till

Maddy Rabenhorst, SHP Field Manager for North Dakota and South Dakota discusses transitioning to no-till, including:

  • Points to consider before transitioning to no-till.
  • How to know if your no-till system is working.
  • Maddy’s personal journey to no-till as a first time no-tiller.

Soil Sessions is a webinar series by the Soil Health Partnership that provides monthly, in-depth updates on various SHP programs and research findings. Soil Sessions covers a range of topics such as our evolving data insights, how SHP manages and integrates data, our connection to and work with our partners, as well as providing technical information on topics like cover crops, scouting and grazing. To view all SHP webinars, visit our website here.

No-Till Success, Follow Your Senses

As I discussed in the previous blog, transitioning to no-till requires commitment. What are some easily identifiable ways for you to know how well your no-till system is working? By using sight, touch, and smell, you can determine if you’ve established a successful no-till system and if it’s improving your soil health.

I have included a few ways to tell if your no-till system is successful and is improving your soil health by simply walking your field:

Take stand counts

Quantifying and visually assessing stand counts is an easy and quick way to determine how well the crop was established. No-till will require different adjustments to your planter than you are used too. Evaluating stand counts can help you determine how your planter performed in the no-till conditions and if future adjustments need to be made. In a successful no-till system, stand counts should be very similar to those you’re used to seeing in a conventional tillage system.

Evaluate seedling health

Evaluate seedling health by checking for the presence of pests or diseases early on in the season. A no-till system can sometimes produce a wetter and cooler planting environment which can leave the seed susceptible to seedling diseases. Certain pests also thrive in no-till conditions so it’s important to scout early and regularly to identify these potential problems.

Look for worms

When walking out into a no-till field, spotting worms is typically very easy. It’s very common to easily identify wormholes and middens on the soil surface. The same is not true for a conventional tillage field, which requires digging around to spot worms. Worms are difficult to find in conventional tillage fields because their habitat has been destroyed by tillage. No-till fields provide a healthy habitat for worms to flourish, pull down residue, create the pores necessary to improve water infiltration, reduce soil compaction, and bring your soil back to life.

Feel the difference

Pick up the soil and hold it in your hands. In a tillage field, you will see and feel a lot of layers in the soil caused by compaction. Soil in a tillage field will break apart in chunks and have very little structure to it. In a no-till field, the soil feels more granular and will fall apart in your hand, it has good soil structure and feels like it is a good soil to plant into.

Smell the difference

Pick up the soil and smell it–yes, really! When you protect the soil and let it live in the environment that it is, no-till soil smells alive. It is easy to smell the difference between no-till soil and conventionally tilled soil.

If you are having the same yields, good crop stands, and your crop looks healthy, your no-till system is working. Are you ready to start no-till?

Insights From a First-Time No-Tiller

My name is Maddy Rabenhorst, and I was raised on my family’s fourth generation farm in Bristol, South Dakota and now grow corn and soybeans with my husband in southeast South Dakota. It did not take long for us to realize that it is important for us to leave our land in better condition than we found it. It meant we needed to start adopting more sustainable practices and eventually phasing our ground out of a tillage system.

Over the past couple years, we have transitioned to a minimum tillage program, but are planning to switch to 100% no-till over the next ten years and incorporate cover crops across our entire farm. Removing tilling from our management practices has been a longer process than we initially anticipated. After being tilled for many years, our ground expects to be tilled year after year and requires a slow end to that practice. We have also been experiencing high rainfall events the past couple of years which has made it difficult to adopt new practices.

No-till means not disrupting the soil outside of planting. When soil is in a no-till system, it looks, smells and acts differently than tilled soil. If you have had the opportunity to attend one of our field days and see the rainfall simulator, it gives great insight between the differences in water runoff and infiltration in no-till and tillage systems.A tillage system does not have the water infiltration a no-till system has.

While no-till is better for the soil long-term, it is a work in progress to stop tilling every year. That process will look different for every farmer. The soil craves to be tilled, after all, that is all it has known for many years. Getting out of the tillage cycle takes patience, planning and diligence. Committing to being a no-till operation 10 years from now has been something both my husband and I have had to totally commit to, as we are always having to adjust the way we manage our ground.

Here are a couple tips from somebody who is still working to transition to no-till. This journey is different for every producer, depending on the soil you are working with:

  • Start slow. Try a few acres on your farm so you are not risking all your acres on a new practice that you do not have much experience with. This allows you to monitor it throughout the growing season and figure out how it will work on your farm.
  • Try no-tilling soybeans first. For first time no-tillers, it might be best to start with soybeans. Corn can be no-tilled as well, but soybeans have more of a defense mechanism and are not quite as particular on seed placement. Corn yields can be greatly affected if seed placement is not correct and since no-tilling requires planting into a different kind of seedbed it may be beneficial to start with soybeans.
  • Try strip-tilling first. Sometimes, producers are not comfortable switching 100% to no-till. In this case, a practice such as strip-till can be used as part of the transition process. On our farm, our plan is to start no-tilling soybeans and strip-tilling corn. Strip-tilling disturbs the soil less than full tillage which allows for soil structure to be built over time, but still creates a seedbed we are used to planting into. Traditional strip-till machines incorporate fertilizer at the same time the tillage strip is created and can be expensive to purchase. For our farm, we have decided to purchase a more cost friendly option, which is a strip freshener. A strip freshener will allow us to create our tillage strips but we will not be applying fertilizer in the strip. This machine can later be plumbed for fertilizer, but to start the transition process this is an economically friendly way to get into an alternative form of tillage.
  • Change your mindset. If you are use to tillage, no-till is an entirely different management system. It will be something that you have to consciously think about.
  • Communicate your change to your retailers. Confirm the correct products are purchased for the new management practice you are going to try. You will need to make sure to discuss with your agronomist how this management system will possibly change your seed, chemical, and fertilizer inputs.
  • Develop a plan. Take the time to effectively plan and expect challenges. I highly encourage you to start planning early if you decide to transition to no-till. Start planning in the winter months and take time to consider some of the challenges you may face in the spring.

No-till is a management practice that allows the soil to act as the living organism that it is, and while it is a challenge, it is one worth committing to. Over the next couple weeks, I will be deep diving into no-till, what that might look like for your farm, things to consider and how it impacts your soil. I am also hosting a webinar discussing no-till; I hope you watch the replay!

No Time to Till? Why not No-Till?

For many of you in the Midwest, 2018 brought some challenges. Lots of rain, lots of snow and lots of moisture that made harvest and any sort of fieldwork difficult.  Many of the farmers we talked to didn’t get the chance to complete all of their fall tillage due to poor field conditions.  This spring hasn’t been much better, bringing snow and rain to many areas, meaning lots of mud and delayed planting progress.  It’s already May so hopefully, planters have already started or will start hitting the field here in the coming weeks as time will be limited.

With that being said, did you finish up what you set off to do last spring or do you have fall tillage plans that have haunted you all winter?  If you didn’t have time to get your tillage finished up last fall, why not use this as an opportunity to take a run at no-till?  Now, hear us out, though.  Just because you didn’t get a chance to till, doesn’t mean no-till is going to be a piece of cake, but it may be an opportunity to try out a practice that you weren’t willing to before.  

No-till may mean less time behind the wheel of a tractor, but it will certainly take some more planning before we hit the field to plant.  We’ve got a few tips to consider to see if trying out no-till this spring is right for you.

    1. Start with soybeans.  Not that you can’t start with corn, but the resilience that soybeans bring to the table goes beyond corn.  If we don’t get the seed-to-soil contact or seed placement just right, they will most-likely compensate and yield right through it.  Corn, on the other hand, is more sensitive to seed placement and we can start affecting yield quickly if we don’t adjust the planter correctly.
    2. Be aware of compaction.  Last fall was wet in most areas.  Like really wet.  That means that crops came out when the ground was wet and we could be looking at some compaction issues, whether it’s in the field where the combine drove or on the end rows where continuous trucks and wagons were parked to haul the grain away.  Before you take the planter to the field, assess the damages.  If there is extreme compaction, you probably want to think about planting soybeans instead of corn to help break-up that compaction.  And, as I mentioned above, make sure that you get your plants off on the right foot.
    3. Adjust your planter accordingly.  With a tillage system, your seedbed is created by the tillage tool and your planter’s main job is to make sure the seed is placed correctly. No-till is a whole different animal.  Now the planter is creating a seedbed and planting the seed, all at the same time.  Make sure your row cleaners are set correctly to get the residue out of the way and scratching the surface of the soil to ensure your seed has no problem coming out of the ground.
    4. Consider modifying your herbicide program.  In a no-till system, we have to primarily rely on herbicides as our source of weed control since we aren’t performing any tillage on that field. Depending on your current herbicide program, it may or may not be a fit for a no-till situation. Proper burndown of weeds is critical before or right after planting and can be achieved by adding a burndown herbicide to your current soybean pre-emergent herbicide program. It’s important to remember to identify the weeds you’re trying to target in the field and use the herbicide label as a reference for rates, mixing capabilities, and other important information.

No-till isn’t difficult, but it does take some planning.  Take the leap and try no-till this spring, but make sure you do your homework.  Think about the time and fuel you could save this spring if just a field or two didn’t need a tillage pass!

Have questions?  Reach out to an SHP Field Manager or send an email to .