My goal, by leaving the soil untilled and establishing cover crops in the fall, is no longer simply to protect the soil from the erosive energy of wind and water. This plant material feeds an ever-expanding soil food web of fungi, bacteria, viruses, algae, protozoa, amoebae, nematodes, mites, worms, maggots, mice, etc., and feeding this system is a lot like feeding livestock. When we cash-crop, we typically only feed the left-over grain crop residues to soil organisms, but that’s not enough. We can’t expect these guys to thrive on tough old corn stalks! So, if we feed fresh, green and tender plant material (protein, sugar and vitamins) to complement the fiber, cellulose and lignin that is in our grain crop residues, our soil organisms will respond with greater productivity. Adding complexity to the crop rotation also adds to the diversity in the diet of soil organisms.
Earthworms such as Lumbricus terrestris were decimated by tillage on our farm under our 1970s plow-till system, because there was no forage on the soil surface for them when they would come up at night to feed. Plowing destroys their habitat and food supply. In a no-till system, their burrows provide fast drainage, are lined with rich fertility and are like a clear highway for crop roots to grow deep in the soil, by-passing layers of compaction.