For farmers, heavy rains can be worse than severe droughts. They can prevent seed germination, destroy fragile seedlings, drown crops, and prevent harvest. After the soil dries, the soil can crust over, creating further problems during a following dry spell.

Runoff from storm
Source: Unlock the Secrets of the Soil video

In the last two years, most farmers in Maryland have experienced both heavy rains, as a result of hurricanes, and major drought. These events should remind us of the importance of healthy soil.

For some time, Ray Archuleta, with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in North Carolina, has been preaching that farms with undisturbed soils (no-till) deal much better with heavy rainfall than farms using conventional practices. His YouTube video “Unlock the Secrets of the Soil“, shows how much better undisturbed soils absorb water.

But the benefits of healthy soil can be much greater. Soils with high organic content can help weather droughts, reduce the need for pesticides and nutrients, and increase profitability. Ray says that all farmers should know the four keys to soil health, which are limit disturbance, cover the soil, increase diversity, and keep a live root growing at all times.

Undisturbed soil with continuous cover
Source. Cover Crops: Under Cover Farmers

Most farmers in Maryland have been limiting disturbance by using no-till practices and have been using cover crops in the winter to stabilize the soils and soak up the residual nitrogen. However, increasing diversity in cover crops is not widely used. For farmers, the questions to answer when considering a new farming practice are “can they afford to do it” and “is there a benefit now and in the future?”

In the USDA video Cover Crops: Under Cover Farmers, you can see three farmers who have used the “four keys” to improve crop yield, reduce loss during droughts, reduce inputs, and increase overall profitability. Initially skeptical of Ray’s recommendations, two of the farmers traveled to North Dakota to see how farmers were getting high corn yields with just 12 inches of rain using the four keys. They learned that over time, the farmers were getting high yields using an intensive cover crop method and little or no fertilizer inputs.

Comparison of soil temperatures in no-till and twice tilled fields
Source –Cover Crops: Under Cover Farmers

The farmers returned to North Carolina and put Ray’s recommendations into practice. The video shows how they sowed the cover crops in the fall, rolled or crimped the cover crop in the spring, and planted into the cover crop mat. At the end of the season, the three farmers all reported at least a 10% increase in crop yield which more than offset the cost of the cover crop seed. They saw a 98% reduction in weeds because of the heavy cover crop mat. And when comparing an adjacent field, which had been tilled twice, they also found lower soil temperatures and more moisture beneath the cover crop mat. As a result of  their own  successes and those in North Dakota, the three farmers are now experimenting with reducing herbicide and fertilizer applications.

Farmer John Pickler is convinced that the “four keys” are improving productivity. But he says that the biggest benefit is that it helps to “drought-proof” the soil, because the high organic content and the thick cover crop mat retain moisture during dry spells.

On a personal note, I observe that after 7.5 inches of rain from Hurricane Sandy, the pond on our family farm is still looking good. The farmer who raises soybeans up hill from the pond uses a no-till method.