Earthworms — they are the unsung heroes and unpaid employees on your farm. According to Frank Gibbs, one of the featured speakers at the National Strip-Tillage Conference held earlier this month in Peoria, Ill., worms are always working to enrich your soil.

You can tell very quickly if these “little livestock” are hard at work in your soil. Instead of hard, compacted soil, you should see plant roots and earthworm channels. Those channels then provide space for more plant roots to grow and waterways for soil drainage.

Drainage is very different from runoff; it does not take soil and nutrients along with it, and instead, allows the water to soak into the soil, rather than sitting on the top. Cover crops also can help worms do their job. For example, planting radishes helps bust up soil compaction so the worms can build their channels.

Like any livestock, earthworms need to be fed. Night crawlers eat organic matter, so any residue left in the soil can be consumed by them. Cover crops such as small grains or wheat add more carbon to the soil while increasing organic matter and provides plenty of fodder for earthworms.

What affects the number of earthworms in your soil? Gibbs, a former Natural Resources Conservation soil scientist, says that soil disturbance from tillage is the worst thing for night crawlers. Leaving soil undisturbed allows it to build structure.

When you think about it, agriculture is a system, and that system needs all the pieces in order to function properly. Cash crops and cover crops keep the soil in place while earthworms increase the organic matter in the soil, which helps those crops do better.

Then, when it rains, the soil is able to handle that moisture and allow it to soak in. It’s a simple, yet beautiful system that works as nature intended.