Twenty years ago when Audubon County farmer Doug Carter realized he needed to change tillage systems, the rate of adoption for no-till was fairly slow. He recalls “a lot of unknowns” and a steep learning curve, but he was determined to make it work to stop erosion on his sloping land.

Carter doesn’t want to contribute to soil erosion in Iowa, which on average, loses about 5 tons of soil per acre per year. “There have been a lot of advancements made to no-till and planter equipment since I switched tillage systems,” Carter recalled. “Looking back I know the change had to be made to stop erosion.”

Carter is pleased that soil testing reveals cover crops are improving organic matter in the soil.

Through the years, Carter says no-till has resulted in other soil health improvements. “The soil holds more water and is able to support equipment better,” he said. “I’m able to get into fields earlier for planting and harvest. During a wet spring, like the last two growing seasons, I was especially glad I didn’t have to worry about spending time doing tillage. I’m saving time and fuel.”

After hearing from other farmers about the added soil health benefits of cover crops, Carter did some research and decided to give them a try. “There are a lot of articles about cover crops, but not a lot of farmers in this area grow them. I reached out to the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) and they helped me get started,” he said. “I also get advice from a farmer in my community that has expanded his use of cover crops. I think it’s important to learn from others.”

During the three years Carter has experimented with cover crops, he has seen improvements. “Soil tests show organic matter is improving,” he said. “Since the cover crop seeding was delayed last fall, I hope we have a good spring that spurs growth before planting to speed progress in the soil.”

Since one-third of the ground is injected with manure from his hog operation on a rotating basis, Carter is grateful grid soil sampling was completed last fall. “Soil tests assure we are balancing the nutrients and not applying too much of one thing or another,” he said. “From a budget standpoint, it’s important to keep nutrients in the field and only apply what’s needed. It’s also environmentally important.

“My goal is to at least seed a cover crop on the fields that get a manure application in the fall,” he added. “I think we can get some of that nitrogen tied up for the cash crop to utilize.”

With soil moisture plentiful before planting, Carter is optimistic about the upcoming growing season. “If the weather cooperates, I could wrap up planting in May,” he said. “Every growing season has its challenges and I’m learning that improving soil health prepares my farm for the future.”

Click here to ask Doug a question about his farming operation.