No-Till, Cover Crops Are Keys to Soil Health
There is no such thing as “barren landscape” on the Lloyd family farm in Clay Center, Kan., a farming community on the Great Plains of the American Midwest. That’s because on just about every acre of the 2,800 on the central Kansas farm, Josh Lloyd has some sort of plant growing.
“I’m trying to mimic Mother Nature,” Lloyd said. “If I wasn’t here farming this land, Mother Nature would have some sort of plant growing on most of the land to build her topsoil. So, I’m trying to be respectful, because she’s provided for my family for more than 150 years here, and I want to leave the land in good shape for the next generation.”
Building topsoil is something Lloyd has done for the past 15 years on the farm. He’s done two things to do so: switch to no-till farming and plant cover crops.
After returning to the farm from Kansas State University, he convinced his dad to try more no-till farming, which is the practice of leaving the ground as it is and not disturbing it with tillage at all. Typically, on the Lloyd farm, some form of tillage was used, before planting or after harvest, in order to loosen the soil for planting and to help with managing weeds.
“My dad was open to the idea, and it’s really changed the way we farm for the better,” Lloyd said. “First, we improve the soil health by leaving residues on the surface of the ground to go back into building more topsoil, which also minimizes soil erosion into creeks (that helps with water quality) and wind erosion into the air (that helps with air quality). Second, we save on fuel because we don’t have to cross the fields in tractors twice. Third, it helps with weed management, as the crop residue covers the ground and can minimize the chances for weeds to take root and grow. I wouldn’t go back to the way it used to be.”
The second process to building the soil profile was to plant cover crops. Cover crops are those planted by farmers in between the harvest of one cash crop and the planting of another. For example, on Lloyd’s farm, after a corn field was harvested in fall 2014, he planted rye, which will survive the winter and keep the soil in place during the blustery Kansas winter. In the spring, he will either harvest the rye crop or let it die in the field, at which point, he’ll be ready to plant sorghum or soybeans.
After wheat is harvested in early-to-mid-summer, he typically plants a double crop, such as soybeans, which he says basically accomplishes the same thing as a cover crop, but provides the opportunity for income. If he plants a cover crop on a field, it usually is a diverse mixture of cover crops, because a variety of plants will grow during the summer.
Lloyd researched and attended extension meetings and seminars and really bought into the benefits of cover crops. The cover crops help to keep the soil from eroding and return nutrients and benefits to the soil for future crops. For example, some farmers plant radishes because they have long roots that break up the soil, which leads to good soil structure for a corn crop to follow, for example.
“On one field, I have had nine crops planted and harvested in five years, with all of the residue from those crops put back into the soil,” Lloyd said. “Cover crops help me to return organic soil matter back to the Earth, and protect the soil from erosion. They also help to reduce the presence of weeds in fields. And they, along with the residue from no-till, hold moisture in the soil, which is so important where we live.”
Learn more about the benefits of no-till farming and cover crops on Josh Lloyd’s farm:
Learner to Preacher
Lloyd has progressed from learner to teacher in the area of no-till and cover crops. He’s on the board of No-Till on the Plains, which is an organization that advocates to other farmers to use no-till, and he’s traveled the country preaching the benefits.
“To me, no-till and cover crops are keys to improving our soil and water quality, which are two things consumers really care about when they look at large farmers,” Lloyd said. “I think we need to do more in the education space to show consumers that farmers care about the soil, the air, the water—we eat and breathe and drink water just like the rest of the country.”