By Matt Reese
Wind and rain do not cause soil erosion. Bad soil management does.
No-till is the answer to many of the problems behind (and resulting from) erosion at work in fields today, according to the line up of expert speakers at the Ohio No-Till Conference held in Plain City.
“When you engage steel with soil, bad things happen,” said Barry Fisher, the Indiana USDA NRCS State Agronomist. “Can we achieve 300 bushel corn and 100 bushel soybeans by 2030? If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we will get what we got. The yield trend line puts us at 193-bushel corn per acre by 2030. Technology has kept us in the game so far, but we need to match that with great soil health. Master the details by using the time that you are not in the tractor seat doing tillage.”
Ohio State University Extension researcher Jim Hoorman suggests that farmers move toward ECO Farming that seeks to mimic nature in a row crop production through the elimination of tillage, cover crops and other practices.
“ECO Farming stands for Eternal no-till, Continuous living cover, and other best management practices,” Hoorman said. “In other words, absolutely trying to eliminate tillage as much as possible.”
Hoorman said the principles behind ECO farming offer economic advantages for farms and a positive benefit for society.
“Some farmers don’t like the term ECO farming, but I really don’t care,” said Hoorman, an assistant professor with OSU Extension. “The rest of the 98% of the population does like the term and, if they like it, and it is making farmers money, then they will learn to appreciate it. This system closely mimics natural cycles in virgin soils by feeding the microbes. You have 1,000 to 2,000 times more microbes associated with live roots.”
Plants supply 25% to 40% of their carbohydrate reserves to feeding the microbes, which in turn recycle nitrogen, phosphorus, and water back to the plant roots. This natural process improves soil structure and increases water infiltration and water storage. Continuous no-till combined with cover crops can save money in fuel, soil loss, nutrients, drainage and numerous other ways while improving soil health and boosting long-term profitability. While no-till numbers have been strong in Ohio for years, the amount of continuous no-till is actually much lower in Ohio and around the country.
“Only 8% to 12% of U.S. cropland has been in continuous no-till for the last five years,” said Brian Lindley, who works with No-till on the Plains in Kansas and was a speaker at the Ohio No-Till conference. “Producers need to manage more diverse and complex crop rotations, abandon their history with tillage and risk being different in their community. When you walk into the coffee shop and everybody stops talking, who do you think they were talking about?”
Lindley also pointed out that it takes, on average, 500 to 1,000 years to erode soils that are being tilled, which happens to be the average duration of the top civilizations through history.
“We can’t just think about what is happening now and in 10 years, we need to preserve our soils for the next 300 or 500 years,” he said.
The ECO Farming system also has more immediate applications, most notably the harmful algal blooms in Ohio’s Lake Erie and Grand Lake St. Marys.
Mark Scarpitti, Ohio NRCS agronomist talked about the suite of practices within the ECO Farming concept to address the water quality issues that are making headlines.
“The goal is to use an integrated system of conservation practices to solve our environmental nutrient issues associated with hypoxia and eutrophication to improve water quality,” Scarpitti said. “There is no silver bullet, but when you combine practices like no-till, cover crops, controlled traffic and precision nutrient management, I think we can address these challenges.”