When it became apparent that the dry spell many Ohio growers experienced last year would become the worst drought in 50 years, David Brandt wasn't worried about how well corn and soybeans on his 1,150-acre farm would fare. The Carroll, Ohio, farmer instead relied upon a natural form of insurance that left the soils in his fields protected against the devastating effects of the record heat and drought that decimated many farmers nationwide in 2012.
Using conservation tillage methods such as no-till and planting cover crops – including radishes and Austrian winter peas in 15-in. alternating rows and an eight-species cover crop blend – allowed the ground temperatures on his farm to remain in a healthy range of 80-90° F while bare ground temperatures in tilled fields reached as high as 130°, Brandt says.
The cover crops also helped retain higher soil moisture levels to help Brandt produce 168 bu. of corn per acre, compared to around 100 bu./acre many growers using conventional tillage produced as a result of drought, he says.
"We were impressed with what we saw and I'm sure that our cover crops helped to create a healthier soil that helped us grow healthy crops during the drought," Brandt says. "Whereas growers who used conventional tillage had stressed corn and lower yields, conservation tillage prevented the same from happening to our fields.
"Cover crops allow us to try to mimic Mother Nature by keeping the soil covered as long as possible. And adding more species in your cover crops results in more diversity in the soil with deeper root systems, which helped our crops grow better."
Brandt is just one of some 900 participants who are expected to attend the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference March 5-6 offered by Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
The annual conference will offer the latest research, insight, tips and techniques on conservation tillage, including cover crops, no-till, soil quality, seeding technology, water quality and nutrient management, says Randall Reeder, a retired OSU Extension agricultural engineer and a conference organizer.
Growers' interest in conservation tillage has increased significantly in recent years as they become more focused on maintaining and building their soils.
"Too many farmers have taken what goes on below the surface for granted," Reeder says. "They have fertilizer and other inputs to help crops grow, but in the last few years have begun to pay more attention to soil quality, which includes chemical and physical properties and the biology of soil.
"Farmers are recognizing the value of having living roots in the soil year-round, not just during the five months or so that corn and soybeans are growing."
Growers are also benefiting from the economics of using less machinery, making fewer trips across the field and the environmental impact of less runoff and erosion, he says.
"Farmers want to leave their land better than they found it and are realizing that the most valuable resource on any farm is the soil," Reeder says.
Participation in the CTC conference may help growers achieve similar results as Brandt, even in extreme weather conditions such as drought, said Jim Hoorman, an OSU Extension educator and an assistant professor studying cover crops and water quality issues.
Conservation tillage and organic matter
Conservation tillage is any tillage and planting system that leaves at least 30% of the soil surface covered by residue after planting, according to the Conservation Technology Information Center in West Lafayette, Ind.
"In conventional tillage, the physical act of turning over the soil breaks open soil aggregates, releasing carbon into the atmosphere," Hoorman says. "In addition, when we till the soil, the soil oxygen level increases and the soil microbes respond by consuming more organic matter, releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
"This is significant considering that conventional tillage has reduced soil organic matter levels by as much as 50-60%."
But using no-till and planting cover crops helps to keep the soil protected and forms macro-aggregates, which store a lot of the carbon in soil. Growing cover crops increases root mass in soils, which helps increase organic matter and carbon content in the soil. Hoorman says this results in cooler soils, increased water infiltration, more water storage capacity, decreased soil compaction and keeps more carbon stored in the soil.
"The key thing is carbon," he says. "Nearly 60-70% of soil carbon comes from roots, so using cover crops such as oilseed radish and cereal rye increases carbon sequestration by keeping the soil covered with live plants.
"The release of greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a problem, but if we keep more carbon in the soil it improves the environment, improves soil and may help lessen the impacts of extreme weather events."
Hoorman, along with OSU Extension educators Rafiq Islam and Alan Sundermeier and 10 other speakers, will present sessions on cover crops during the conference. In all, the two-day conference will feature 60 presenters. Information presented will include about 10 hours on nutrient management; eight hours on soil and water; "Corn University"; "Soybean School"; crop scouting; no-till; and seeding technology.
Hoorman says interest in no-till and cover crops is growing because of the increased yield and profit potential, and cost savings from using less nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides.
"The whole situation is creating a new system called 'ecological farming' by trying to farm in Mother Nature's image by not disturbing the soil," he says. "It changes your whole philosophy about how you go about farming.
"You may have to sacrifice a little bit in the short term, but you'll see tremendous long-term gains with this kind of farming."
But for some growers, it can be a hard sell, says Brandt, who works with OSU Extension and OARDC researchers on cover crops on his farm. That's especially true for farmers who have used conventional tillage for years and may find it harder to adjust.
"We all get into a rut in how we do things and using cover crops is a whole different mindset," he said. "The hesitation is that we have been taught to use conventional tillage for years and years, which makes it harder to change that paradigm to do something different.
"It's like putting your pants on right leg first for years, then having to change and put your pants on with your left leg first. But if we don't change our habits, we won't be able to continue to provide food for the world if we continue to wear out the soil. We've got to conserve the soil by using cover crops and reducing erosion."
The Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference is at the McIntosh Center of Ohio Northern University in Ada. The full schedule and registration information can be found at http://ctc.osu.edu. Participants can register online or by mail. Registration for the full conference is $85 (or $65 for one day) if received by Feb. 27. Information is also available in county offices of OSU Extension.
The conference is sponsored by OSU Extension, OARDC, Northwest Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Ohio No-Till Council.