Don Reicosky and Jim HoormanDon Reicosky and Jim Hoorman spoke at the Soil Quality Field Day Sept. 13 at Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. Reicosky is retired from USDA Soils Lab in Morris and Hoorman is an Ohio State University Extension educator. (AgriNews photo)

The preacher of cover crops delivered his own fire and brimstone message at a recent soil quality workshop.

Jim Hoorman, an Extension educator with Ohio State University Extension, says tillage and the lack of soil cover for eight months a year are reducing yields and profits.

"This (soil) is a living, breathing organism," he said.

He calls the microbes in the soil "a farmer's livestock" and asked producers how often they feed their livestock. If they are only 4 four months a year, they're starving, Hoorman said.

Hoorman is pushing a concept called ECO farming. Some farmers don't like the term, but he doesn't care. He's not after farmers, he's after the general public, which has a positive connotation with the word ECO. ECO farming is "ecological farming with a continuous living cover and other best management practices."

ECO farming is economical for the farmer, ecologically viable and environmental sound, Hoorman said.

The goal is to disturb the soil as little as possible to raise crops and in so doing improve soil structure.

Hoorman sees tremendous soil compaction, which is compressing the soil like cement blocks and making it impossible for corn and soybean roots to penetrate. Crop roots are only able to utilize 10 percent to 20 percent of soil capacity when soil is compacted, he said.

The compaction was visible in a soil pit dug at Waseca for the workshop. The soils were beautiful and deep, but there was a hardpan at six inches that was nearly impossible for roots to penetrate unless they were fine. Moisture existed beneath the hardpan that roots couldn't reach.

University of Minnesota regional Extension educator Jodi DeJong-Hughes said the pit illustrated what they talked about. The soil was recovering where grass was planted and broke off into her hand when she scratched it with her pocket knife. The soil in the field portion had a hardpan that was impenetrable.

The hardpan can cause flooding and ponding because water can't infiltrate the soil, Hoorman said.

"The soil is a natural biological system that contains a lot of life and when tilled intensively is dramatically changed," said Don Reicosky, a retired soil scientist from the USDA ARS North Central Soil Conservation Research Laboratory in Morris. "It can be considered analogous to human reaction to a combination of earthquake, tornado, hurricane and forest fire all rolled into one perturbation event."

Bacteria are the only thing that can survive, Hoorman said. Healthy soil has more fungi than bacteria and more macro-aggregates, which improve soil structure.

Hoorman suggests that farmers introduce no-till and cover crops, having assembled his theory through experience and trial.

After graduation from Ohio State, Hoorman managed 50-plus farms across the state and worked at Ohio State. He observed Amish farmers and was amazed at the yields they were getting when planting 20,000 seeds per acre and using little commercial fertilizer, relying instead on livestock manure.

Their rotation included two years of alfalfa, corn, oats and spelt. Plants were living and growing on the soil year-round and the soil was only plowed one year out of five. These practices added a lot of organic matter to the soil and the soil was looser.

By contrast, the Amish who didn't have pasture or alfalfa and farmed similar to conventional farmers had compacted soils.

He kept those things in his mind and when he went back to get his doctorate, he started connecting tillage, bare soil and compaction.

Making no-till work has been a challenge, Hoorman admits, with yield decreases of 10 percent to 20% expected when converting from conventional tillage.

But he argues it takes time for soil to recover from continuous tillage, seven to nine years in fact. But adding cover crops to the rotation will speed the recovery to two to four years. Adding manure will help the soil recover faster.

What's the difference between soil that's tilled and soil that's not?

Tilled soils have more bacteria than fungi. Fungi need more stable conditions to survive, Hoorman said. The presence of bacteria and fungi impact the soil structure. Active organic matter is another ingredient that is lost through tillage. Tilled soil in the United States has lost as much as 60% to 80% of its soil organic matter.

Organic matter is a warehouse for soil nutrients and those nutrients are lost when organic matter is lost. Organic matter is lighter than sand, silt and clay and is lost through erosion. Hoorman puts the value of 1% of soil organic matter at $660 per acre.

Increasing soil organic matter increases its productivity. He's working with a farmer who has built up his soil organic matter and uses only 20 pounds of commercial nitrogen to get his crop started. Most of the nitrogen for his crop comes from legumes planted on the field the previous spring. He knows it's hard to believe, but said the corn was a dark green as he's seen.

Seeing turns people into believers, he said.

Farmers who try cover crops and no-till in Ohio are benefiting and making more money per acre. They are using less fuel, spraying for fewer weeds and seeing less snirt. Change is occurring farmer by farmer.

It's like the first crop farmers raise on a field that's been in the Conservation Reserve Program for 10, 15 or 20 years. Mother Nature has resolved the soil compaction issues humans created and restored soil productivity.

Hoorman hopes light bulbs come on before the way we farm comes back to haunt us.

Other takeaways from Jim Hoorman's presentation:

• On spreading manure on frozen ground: Take a lesson from the buffalo, graze large areas and apply manure to live plants. Apply small amounts of manure and then move on and let the grass grow.

• Living soil fallow is the worst thing a farmer can do. It may work for a short period of time, but organic matter is being lost when soil is fallow, he says. Use plants that use less water. In Nebraska, a farmer adopted cover crops on his dryland farm, and during the winter the cover crops caught snow, which added moisture to the soil.

• "Farmers, I think you secretly love weeds," Hoorman said. Weeds love disturbed conditions and take advantage of the way we farm.

When soil is tilled, it's like opening the damper on the fireplace, oxygen is added. For a short time, microbes in the soil go nuts with new nutrients, but if they don't have live roots in winter and early spring, they die off, because no live roots exist to absorb the soluble nutrients.