WEST MIDDLESEX, Pa. — No-till is no longer enough to conserve soil and produce good yields. Experts at the Pennsylvania No-till Day held Jan. 31 in West Middlesex, Pa., say it takes the combination of no-till and cover crops.
Jim Hoorman, Ohio State University Extension, was the keynote speaker at the event, and he calls the combination, “eco farming.” It ensures there is a continuous living cover on fields and advocates the use of other best management practices.
Hoorman told the group that cover crops can be beneficial to the soil and, in return, economical to the farmer.
By using conventional tillage, plants grow only four months out of the year and plants are only going to benefit from the fuel and energy generated one-third of the time.
In no-till tillage and cover crops, plants are in the soil 12 months out of the year. This means that the fuel and energy is generated 100 percent of the time.
Hoorman explained that by using cover crops, the organic matter in soil expands and that makes it more valuable to the farmer, and means stronger yields in the end.
He developed a formula to measure soil organic matter, and estimates it has a $900 value an acre to a farmer.
“Organic matter is what we should be building. That’s what is important,” said Hoorman.
Hoorman told the group there are some quicker ways to build organic matter in the soil. He suggests growing the rotation of corn, then beans, and follow with a cover crop. This could be turnips, oats, clover or cereal rye.
Hoorman explained the rotation allows two sets of roots to develop, and the roots will develop the organic material.
Other benefits cover crops give is in the form of drainage — they allow farmers to reduce the amount of money they need to set aside for sub-surface drainage.
“Farmers say you pay for tile every 20 years whether or not it is installed, because you pay for it with poor yield some years,” Hoorman said.
He suggested taking the amount farmers set aside for the tile and use it instead to purchase cover crops.
One thing Hoorman did caution farmers is that the state will be issuing new fertilizer regulations, and those regs could outlaw broadcasting fertilizer and require it to be injected.
Another benefit Hoorman is seeing in his research is with cornstalks. He said that many farmers are complaining about the tough cornstalks left in the field after harvest. But he said his research has shown that more organic material means more earthworms, which increases the likelihood the cornstalks will be devoured by organisms living in the soil.
He added that he has seen a 70-bushel yield difference this summer in Wood County, in northwestern Ohio, because of fields with cover crops vs. fields with no cover crops.
Charlie White, a member of the crop management extension team for Penn State University, also spoke at the meeting, about making the most of cover crops.
He said a farmer must first decide what the needs are in the fields.
Does he need to alleviate soil compaction, improve the soil structure, improve nitrogen fixation or nitrogen retention.
He suggested farmers mix different species with complementary growth periods and different architecture. This means if one specie dies in the fall, have a different specie that can last through the winter. It is also important to consider plants with different heights so they don’t crowd each other out for sunshine during growth periods.
Some suggestions he gave were radishes and turnips with the Austrian winter pea. He also suggested annual rye grass with a crimson clover or a blend of sorghum, sudangrass, soybeans and red clover.
He said cover crops have endless possibilities, it’s just a matter of finding out what the needs are on the farm and finding the right blend of cover crops to fit those needs.