Healthy soil can be achieved through no-till, nutrient management, pest management and cover crops, says Derek Thompson, district conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“There’s a lot of farmers that have begun to adopt those practices in varying stages, but soil health is a journey with not really an end destination,” Thompson said this week. “You always want to be improving soil health.”

Thompson spoke July 16 at this year’s Agronomy Field Day hosted by the Andersons, east of Waterloo. Local conservation districts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Purdue University co-sponsored the free event.

“A lot of folks have started down the journey” of soil health, Thompson said, “but now they’re kind of ‘Where do we go now?’ on the journey. You just need to keep more fine-tuning, managing those key practices to further develop the soil health on their farms.”

Thompson said northeast Indiana farmers are showing more interest in no-till than ever before.

“For years, our agency has promoted no-till as a key practice,” he said. “I think the piece we were missing for a lot of years was the cover crops, the nutrient management and the pest management to go with the no-till.”

He added, “If you start on no-till as a producer, and all you do is take out the tillage … and don’t change anything else, that’s going to be a tough road. If your nutrient-management plan isn’t written for no-till, you’re not going to have as good a success.” The same is true for pest management, he said.

“No-till and cover crops complement each other. The benefits to the soil are exponentially better,” he said.

A gradual approach works best, he added.

“You have to start somewhere. We never usually recommend that folks do everything all at one time,” he said.

Indiana ranks among the nation’s leaders with more than 1 million acres in cover crops, Thompson said. Still, that’s less than 10 percent of the cropland acres in the state.

Thompson sees encouragement in the fact that only a few no-till farmers are depending on financial assistance offered by various programs.

“A lot of them are doing it on their own, because they see the benefits to it,” he said.

Among cover crops, cereal rye — which looks like wheat, only taller — is one of the most popular, especially when transitioning from corn to soybeans.

For switching from soybeans to corn, oats and oil-seed radishes are most popular

“They’re economical, they perform well under wet conditions, dry conditions, hot, cold,” he said about the leading cover crops. “They’re the most resilient, and they’re also the easiest to plant and the easiest to manage the following spring.”

“We’re trying to put cover crop roots down to build the organic matter,” Thompson said. “Every farmer, when they look at their soil test, they’re looking at the percentage of organic matter.”

The true definition of a cover crop is that it will not be harvested, Thompson said. It will be terminated through frost — such as oats and oil-seed radishes — mowed, or taken down chemically or mechanically. Roller-crimpers are gaining popularity for termination.

Sept. 15 is a target to plant winter-kill cover crops, Thompson said. “That’s a really tight one for our part of the world,” he acknowledged. “It really works well to plant those kind of species after wheat.”

Cereal rye should be planted by Nov. 1, he said.

Increasing use of cover crops and other soil-health strategies depends on local farmers, Thompson said, adding, “Without them, none of it would work.”