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#NoTillNovember: Farmers Build Soil Health Together
Farmers understand that healthy soils are the starting point for farm productivity and sustainability. When they work together to conduct research and experiment with best practices, farmers become powerful change agents.
Research has shown that managing a crop for optimal nitrogen use and productivity also increases soil organic carbon, which in turn boosts crop productivity while reducing nitrogen loss.  Nitrogen and phosphorous use has improved corn yield in the U.S. and greenhouse gas emissions are minimized under these highly productive systems, demonstrating the link between productivity and sustainability. [2,3]
The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) is a farmer-led collaboration initiated by the National Corn Growers Association. SHP brings together farmer leaders committed to improving the sustainability of their farms with a strong focus on soil health and productivity. As of 2017, SHP has a network of more than 100 demonstration farms to showcase best practices. Together these farmers are testing and measuring farm practices like growing cover crops, implementing conservation tillage (such as no-till or strip-till practices) and managing nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers to
maximize their benefit while reducing negative impacts on water quality.
Transitioning to No-Till
Research has shown that no-till cropping systems tend to improve soil health over the long run, but the transition from tilling to a no-till system requires a sustained commitment from farmers and education and support from others, as declines in yield may happen in the first years of the transition period. By adding cover crops, soil health can build up more quickly during the transition to a no-till system, thereby restoring higher yields sooner.
While some cover crops are harvested for profit, the primary use of cover crops is to improve soil for the main crops of corn, wheat, soybeans or other row crops that are planted after the cover crops mature. Cover crops reduce soil erosion from wind and rain. Below the surface, their root systems support soil structure and retain nutrients, particularly nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.
Cover crops such as ryegrass, winter rye, clover, hairy vetch and alfalfa are planted alongside row crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) at optimum times during the growing season to keep living plants in the fields as long as possible, anchoring the soil and preventing erosion. Legumes and grasses are extensively used, as well as brassicas (such as rape, mustard and forage radish).
Cover crop roots also reduce soil compaction and improve the ability of fields to conserve water after rainfall, thereby reducing the amount of irrigation water required. The organic matter left behind by cover crops contributes to soil organic matter, which improves soil fertility and the yields of other crops grown in the field.
The USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and private-sector companies such as Monsanto participate in the SHP by providing funding and guidance, and conservation organizations including The Nature Conservancy bring technical assistance. The Midwest Row Crop Collaborative has contributed additional funding so that over the course of 10 years, the SHP will provide a set of specific, data-driven recommendations that farmers across nine Midwestern states can use to improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms.
 Poffenberger, H.J. et al., “Maximum soil organic carbon storage in Midwest U.S. cropping systems when crops are optimally nitrogen-fertilized,” PLOS ONE, 2017.
 Ciampitti, I.A. and T.J. Vyn, “Understanding global and historical nutrient use efficiencies for closing maize yield gaps,” Agron J 106:2107-2117, 2014.
 Grassini, P. and K.G. Cassman, “High-yield maize with large net energy yield and small global warming intensity,” PNAL 109:1074- 1079, 2012.