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Friday, March 7th, 2008

Extension official says cover crops and no-till can be a winning combination

Jim Hoorman helping local farmers put in winter cover crops

By Nancy Allen
Combining cover crop planting with no-till can help farmers transition from conventional tillage practices much faster, said Ohio State University Extension official Jim Hoorman.
Hoorman is doing research on the topic and has helped local producers in the Grand Lake Watershed establish cover crops over the last year. He spoke at Thursday's monthly agriculture breakfast in Celina.
Hoorman said the hottest topic at the recent conservation tillage conference held recently in Ada was using cover crops to make no-till work better. Local farmers have been slow to adopt no-till farming.
"Because we take a 10 to 20 percent yield loss the first couple of years, it takes seven to nine years to convert to no-till," Hoorman said. "If you can plant a cover crop you can reduce that time to two to four years."
No-till farming reduces soil erosion and is good for water quality. It also saves farmers money on fuel and reduces soil compaction because farmers have to make less passes over farm ground with heavy equipment. Dense, compacted soil is more prone to runoff and can't store water and nutrients as well.
Planting cover crops in the winter after fall crops have been harvested puts nitrogen in the soil that can be used for the next spring's crops such as corn and soybeans around here. Cover crops also aerate soil with extensive root systems and improve biological processes in the soil.
Hoorman said inorganic (commercially bought) nitrogen has a weak bond with soil and is easily lost in the form of a gas when soil is saturated. Commercial nitrogen also washes out of the soil under wet conditions.
In a time when the cost of nitrogen and other chemical fertilizers used to grow crops have doubled or tripled over the last few years, cover crops could be a boon to farmers.
"Since (nitrogen) costs are going up we're looking at natural forms of nitrogen that don't leach out," Hoorman said.
Soil organic matter helps form fungus, carbon, beneficial microbes and bacteria in the soil, which all work together to make it more productive for growing crops.
Soil organic matter, the plant residue left from cover crops, gives beneficial soil microbes something to feast on all year round and grows bacteria, which is high in nitrogen. Fungus is very efficient at keeping the carbon in the soil and the carbon is what the nitrogen attaches to, he said.
Soil organic matter, the building block to this entire process, is lost when soil is tilled and oxygenated.
"In conventionally tilled soil, there's not much organic matter and it dies quickly and leaches out nitrogen," he said.
Hoorman should know in April if a grant request he submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for cover crop planting in the Grand Lake Watershed is successful.
The next monthly agriculture breakfast meeting is 7:30 a.m. April 3 in the first floor conference room at the Mercer County Central Services Building in Celina.
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