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Home > Resource Conservation > Soil > No-Till Cash/Cover Crop Rotation

Resource Conservation: Soil: No-Till Cash/Cover Crop Rotation.

county fair pics.
This is our pick for agriculture method that will feed the most people efficiently with one crop. This method can also help relieve many of our "greenhouse gas" problems.



No-Till Cash/Cover Crop Rotation is a method of farming designed to promote healthy soil life (soil food web). This method builds organic matter in the soil without the farmer having to add amendments. In other words, the farmer grows his own fertilizer and pesticide. Then he grows a cash crop.
     This method basically boils down to the farmer taking 4 passes (or less) over their crop land in a year. This saves a lot of fossil fuels and "sequesters" a bunch of greenhouse gasses.
     This method also allows a cash crop every year on the same chunk of land no matter the rain fall or crop type (usually).
The 4 passes a farmer would do on their property would be the following:
  • Seed Cover Crop:
  • Kill Cover Crop:
  • Seed Cash Crop:
  • Harvest Cash Crop:
Overall, no other passes need to be taken on the farm property. The higher amount of organic matter in the soil the better this system works.
     That is basically it. No extra trips to apply fertilizer, insecticides or fungicides.

Seed The Cover Crop:

Since the best thing to do is to have a live root in the ground as close to 365 days a year, the seed drill should closely follow the harvesting combine. If you can not attach a drill to the combine, you should seed as soon as harvest is over.
     What is a cover crop? The main function of a cover crop is to mine nutrients from the soil to make them available to the next cash crop. A cover crop also has the advantage of providing erosion control (armor for the soil), but is a minor reason to having such a crop. If the cover crop is selected well, the cash crop will receive all the nutrients it needs and store some nutrients in the soil. That means the soil fertility grows every year (regenerative) without the use of fertilizers. Note: We do not mean "reduce fertilizer" we mean "eliminate fertilizer".
     What should I select for a cover crop? That depends on what kind of soil you have, what kind of nutrients you need, the usual rain fall, if it freezes and many other factors. You will need plants that have deep roots, shallow roots, wide roots, broad leaf, narrow leaf, tall and short. Many people who do this will have a mix of a dozen or more species of plant for their cover crop. Studies have been done that point to optimally having at least 5 species of plant growing side by side in a cover crop.
     For your soil, you will have to determine what  you want to accomplish with a cover crop. We suggest using the SmartMix cover crop calculator sponsored by GreenCoverSeed.com. Be warned: This calculator is highly addictive. Many farmers play on this for hours on end.
Why No-Till? Here we actually mean elimination of any tilling which also include "strip" tilling. It is not worth the extra trip in the field. Anyway, tilling kills the soil food web (living organisms in the soil). Some web sites say, "tilling the soil releases carbon" because they are unwilling to state that tilling kills the organisms in the soil food web and by killing them they release carbon.
     If a farmer does not disturb the soil food web, all the organisms  will work to feed each other and feed the root of the plants growing in the soil. If there is enough of a soil food web, plants can obtain all the nourishment they need from the soil food web. This usually occurs when the organic matter in the soil is above 4%.
     No-Till Seed Drill: As residue builds up on the land, the seed drill needs to penetrate and seed the ground. While seed drills have existed for many decades, a no-till seed drill has only been around a few decades. This may be more expensive than your typical seed drill because it needs to weigh a bit more. However, this drill should replace a standard drill, a plow attachment and a fertilizer applier.

Kill The Cover Crop:

It is a goal of a "real" no-till farmer to have a live root in the soil as long as possible throughout the year. However, as the time approaches to plant the cash crop, the farmer needs to make sure the cover crop will not interfere with the growth and harvest of the cash crop. This can be done in a few ways.
  • Short Cover Tall Cash
  • Winter Kill Cover
  • Forage Cover
  • Herbicide Kill Cover
  • Roll Kill Cover
     Short Cover Tall Cash: If the cash crop is tall like a grain, you could consider a short set of cover crop species. This could be like crimson clover, tillage radish and so on. Consult the calculator of other short cover crops. These cover crops could still be growing when seeding the cash crop, provided enough sun it hitting the place the seed was drilled. Then as the tall cash crop gets taller than the cover, the cover may die or wilt and allow the cash crop to dominate. One could also consider perinial cover crops like grasses that could stay on the land all year and does not need to be planted or killed every year (reducing the passes to 2).
     Winter Kill Cover: There are many species of cover crop that will die in a cold winter. In the spring, the ground will have less armor (residue) but will be easy to plant into. Doing this method you run the risk of run off (erosion) in the spring but you do not have to drive over the field to actively kill the cover crop. Also, weed pressure may be a bit higher with this method.
     Forage Cover: If you farm animals like cows and chickens this might be a good thing to try. As you let the animals out in late winter early spring, you could graze them on the cover crop before bringing them to the pasture. This grazing will fertilize the soil and prepare the ground for planting without driving a tractor over it.
Herbicide Kill Cover: O.K., we do not like this method because it creates a chemical dependence for the farming. We also think that the other methods of killing the cover crop are better and in the long run, cheaper. However, many no-till farmers do this.
     What this method means is that a few days to a few weeks before you plant a cash crop a sprayer will drive over the land applying a herbicide. It is generally thought that the herbicide dissipates in a short time and will not hurt the cash crop you plant. It is also assumed to not harm any members of the soil food web (cover crop roots excluded).
     We have found no compelling evidence to suggest this will harm the soil food web so we will stay neutral on this.
     Roll Kill Cover: An interesting method gaining in popularity for no-till farmers is to roll (and crimp) the cover crop. This consists of a big drum roller/crimper attached to the tractor. The drum is heavy to help get even the tallest of cover crops to lie down. The roller has ridges on it so that as it rolls the cover out it also "breaks" it. If this is done just before the cover makes seeds, the plant will die on the ground creating an armor for the soil and fertilizer for the soil as it decays.
     Currently, roller/crimpers are not very wide compared to the width of a herbicide pass. In general, an herbicide pass will be about 3 times wider, meaning 3 times the time and fuel. For that reason, we feel that no till seeders and the roller/crimper need to get wider and both need to happen in the same pass. 

Seed The Cash Crop:

Ideally the no-till farmer will want to combine the roll kill cover and seed drill cash crops in one operation. However, if the kill is from herbicides, you want some of that chemical to dissipate before seeding.
What to plant:

Harvest Cash Crop:

G.M.O. or NO:

Monoculture or polyculture?

Don't Take Our Word For It:

Honorable Mention: Direct Seed Cropping

Yield And Other Calculations:

More Savings Calculations:

Glossary of Terms:

Residue: The left over stubble from the harvest and built up cover crop. Some farmers call this the soil's armor.

Soil Food Web: A collection of life underground. This life includes, fungus, bacteria, insects, nematodes, digging mammals and plant roots.
Weed: A plant in the cash crop that is undesirable to the farmer.

Weed Pressure: The propensity for a weed to grow in the cash crop area.


http://www.no-tillfarmer.com/ No-till farmer web site. Good general information. taken 9/5/2015.

http://www.madehow.com/Volume-3/Fertilizer.html, From the web site "How products are made", the write up on chemical fertilizer. Taken 9/7/2015.

http://www.soilfoodweb.com/Home_Page.html Dr. Elaine Ingham's web page on the soil food web. Taken 9/11/2015.

http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Pesticide.html From the Website "How Products are made", The write up on chemical pesticides. Taken 9/13/2015.

http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/nrcs144p2_045129.pdf Beyond The Beginning, The Zero Till Evolution, USDA, Taken 3/8/2016.