Gail Fuller began experimenting with no-till cropping systems in the mid-1980s. He has been using continuous no-till throughout his entire operation since 1995. The Emporia, Kan., farmer spoke to producers at a recent No-till on the Plains workshop near Spencer recently, explaining why he is sold on cover crops in no-till systems. "No-till isn't the answer," Fuller said. "It is just the first step."
Fuller told the group that the planting of cover crops goes back to the colonial days of America. The list of benefits includes recycling nutrients like nitrogen, providing canopy and residue, breaking pest and weed cycles, building organic matter and ultimately, soil health.
Fuller said that farmers began to get away from planting cover crops after World War II. "We're not reinventing the wheel," he said. "We're just trying to get back to where we were."
Fuller called cover crops, "living mulch." He combines mob grazing and the planting of cover crop cocktail mixtures, using several types of plants in the mix, to build his soil and conserve water. Having experienced drought over the past few years in his area, Fuller said, "We rely on early moisture and we farm to save water the rest of the year."
With the extreme loss of topsoil in the U.S. in past decades, Fuller said, "Residue is valuable." He said that cover crops feed the system just like we feed ourselves.
University of Nebraska Extension engineer, Paul Jasa, told the group that cover crops use some water. "But if there are 12 different kinds of plants in the cover crop mixture, it doesn't burden water use." Individual plant species might use up water in the soil profile, but planting several different types of plants together in a mixture creates a system that doesn't deplete moisture resources in the soil.
"Cover crops are huge," said Dan Gillespie, NRCS Eastern Nebraska no-till specialist. "Cover crops mixtures can change the rate at which carbon will break down, and make it easier to plant into a healthy seedbed."
Watch for more no-till information in the November print issue of Nebraska Farmer. If you'd like to learn more about planting and managing cover crops in a no-till system, contact Jasa at 402-472-6715 or Gillespie at 402-675-2745.