It's planting time—do you know where your earthworms are?
Pennsylvania no-till farmer Steve Groff counts the many, wriggling benefits of no-till

By Steve Groff

May 5, 2005: One of the many great things about no-till farming is that it protects and promotes earthworm populations. I like to think of earthworms as providing free soil tillage services—if you can create good conditions for them, they'll be out there working and improving your soil 24 hours a day, with no labor and no use of fuel or equipment on your part.

   

The spring is a great time to check on how your earthworms are doing. The other night—it was the last day of April—Cheri and the three Grofflets and I went out and walked the fields in the evening just before dark. Conditions were perfect: recent rain, no wind, temperature at 60 degrees.

   

Here's what we saw. In our fields, the number of worms was incredible. They were big and healthy-looking. We were taking pictures, and in one picture I later counted 30 worms. In another picture, covering an area approximately 3' x 3', there were a total of 17 worms. Overall, we estimated an average of two to three worms per square foot in the 2.5-acre field.

   

We also got a good look at what the worms were eating. I'm currently testing forage radish as a cover crop, and in this field I had planted a mixture of oats and forage radish last September. I took several pictures of worms eating decomposing forage radish roots. I'm glad to see the worms love them!

   

The pictures show how much of the residue the worms have eaten since the start of spring. Actually the field is now barer then I'd like it to be but at least the residue incorporation method was better than with steel.

There were so many worms that I had a hard time getting the kids to leave the field. We spent over half an hour observing them. It was fun seeing the worms pull residue into their holes—at some moments you could actually hear the residue moving.

Another interesting thing was that I discovered the worms don't seem to hear anything. We could talk normally without startling them, but if you made sudden movements they dove into the ground. If I stomped my foot on the ground, all the worms within 25 feet dove for cover! As you can imagine, the kids loved doing that. I had to stop though, since I didn't want to disturb the worms too much!

Next we went over to our neighbor's plowed fields to look for worms. We walked over a third of an acre and saw exactly three worms, total. For the sake of comparison, I again took a picture of a 3' x 3' square of earth, but this time there wasn't a single worm in the picture. Need I say more???