Conservation farming has come a long way in the past four decades, and now there is some actual data coming that says it is economically viable.

Bryan Overstreet, Purdue University Extension soil conservation coordinator and based in Valparaiso, Ind., said farmers relied mostly on anecdotal evidence—what their neighbor was doing, for example—to determine if no-till farming was right for them. But as more farms have embraced no-till and cover crops, there is a broader knowledge base to tap into.

Conservation farming became popular in the early 1980s. Farmers' early perception of the practice was often influenced by the weedy appearance of crop fields during the spring. When cover crops arrived on the scene, there was concern about the additional time needed to plant them and how to terminate them in the spring.

But as these and other questions have been answered and new equipment has been introduced, more growers are interested but are still concerned about the most important metric: profits.

"We're showing that you can make it work, and it can be economically viable to do it," Overstreet said, referring to conservation farming.

In this, the final article in the Exchange's "Digging into Conservation" series, Overstreet explains some of the benefits to conservation farming and addresses why more farmers aren't practicing it.

"Basically, we've been abusing our soils for the last 80 to 100 years, and it takes it a while to heal," Overstreet said. "You're not going to heal it overnight. By keeping it in that system longer, you're giving it a chance to heal. You're giving a chance for the microbes, the bacteria, the fungi to do their thing."

The microbes, bacteria and fungi all help break down plant material and convert it into nutrients that the following year's crop can use. The more biological activity in the soil, Overstreet said, the healthier it will be.

But "when we till that soil, we disrupt that system again, especially the fungi," he said. "We destroy their home. So, it would be like a tornado going through your house every seven years."

Another reason to adopt no-till is weed control.

"When we do that tillage, we're also bringing up weed seed that we buried years ago," he said.

With conventional tillage, there is also the problem of soil compaction from driving heavy equipment over the field.

Conservation farming requires a long-term view, Overstreet said. Often, major benefits are realized after at least five years. Farmers who try no-till and cover crops for a year or two won't notice much change in their soil health, he said.

"It may take a couple years to get enough diversity in there to make it work," Overstreet said. "In the first year or two, you may not see anything, but after three, four or five years, you start to see that soil health grow and you're getting more retention of your water."

Increased water retention is important to help crop fields absorb heavy rains, and Overstreet said soils with high organic matter improve a field's ability to absorb water. The soils also hold that water for a longer period of time, making it available for the growing cash crop.

"In the long run, it's going to pay for itself," Overstreet said of such soils.

From an environmental perspective, increased water holding capacity helps prevent nutrients from running off into streams and waterways.

For cover crops, Overstreet said two barriers are time and expense. To save on time, growers can hire an aerial applicator to spread seed in the fall. This allows the seed to get a head start on growth.

Also, growers can plant a cover crop that dies in the winter. This saves the time and expense of having to spray burn down in the spring.

Many agricultural cooperatives and end users now pay farmers for climate-friendly farming practices, with cover crops being one of those practices. Also, USDA offers cover crop subsidies, and many crop insurance programs offer a premium discount for farmers who plant cover crops.

Despite the benefits, only 10% of Indiana farms plant cover crops. Overstreet said two issues prevent more widespread acceptance: learning how to get the cover crop established in the fall and understanding how to efficiently plant into it the next spring.

That's where having evidence will help promote more widespread use, he said.

According to Overstreet, the biggest misconception about conservation farming is that it can't be done on certain soil types.

"We've learned a lot of lessons over the years on how to do it in more places," he said. "It's a different management style than what we've been used to, so it's learning that system and how to do it, but I think it can be done properly anywhere. ... In the long run, it's a lot easier than what people think it is."

As for anecdotal evidence, the Exchange featured five area farmers who practice conservation farming. The following are some of the key take-away points from those stories:

  • Jamie Scott, Pierceton —An early adopter of no-till and cover crops, Scott believes strongly in environmental stewardship and conservation. He no-tills and plants cover crops on 2,000 acres. One factor in his decision to embrace these practices was the erosion caused by heavy rains. Scott pointed out that farms located near waterways should be extra careful to use conservation. Otherwise, they will eventually be forced by the government to comply with regulations.
  • Mark Kingma, Wheatfield—Kingma turned to no-till and cover crops as a way to combat wind erosion. He plants cereal rye after harvest. To save time, he applies seed while using a vertical tillage tool, known as an RTS. During the spring, he plants soybean "green" into the cover crop. At his farm, he has seen a noticeable yield bump from using cover crops.
  • Michael Werling, Decatur—Conservation farming really does work, Werling says, resulting in richer soil and cleaner water. When he started using cover crops and no-till, there was a yield drag. However, he overcame that within five years. Also, he said some of the problems associated with no-till and cover crops can be solved by getting a better understanding of how each conservation method works various soil types.
  • Ryan Waite, Angola—Farming nearly 1,000 acres, Waite turned to cover crops and no-till to save time and money. He plants cereal rye on all of his soybean acres, even the hardest soil types. He plants soybeans directly into the green cover crop, and then he makes a second pass to terminate the rye. As the cover crop dies, it forms a layer of organic matter that holds moisture and suppresses weeds. "I've been doing this for four or five years, full-out, and I'm still learning," he said. "It is an evolving game."
  • Benoit and Sarah Delbecq, Auburn—Many farmers think they have to commit to all the different conservation programs, which is financially unsustainable for them. But the Delbecqs say this isn't true. Farmers can choose to use some conservation methods and not others. At their Auburn farm, they never work the ground and have seen improvements in soil health.
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