Tillage Trends Show Both Progress and Problems
When you look at Ohio's conservation tillage trends, there's both good news and bad news. That might sound like the opening line for a joke, but the use of conservation tillage seriously affects water quality, soil health and the long-term productivity of farmland in the state. While improvements in equipment, herbicides and cultural practices are making conservation tillage easier and more profitable than ever, management challenges are still holding down the use of conservation tillage, especially for corn.
According to statistics compiled by the Conservation Tillage Information Center, the use of conservation tillage in Ohio peaked in 2000 at about 56 percent of the state's corn, soybean and wheat acreage. But more recent figures show use of conservation tillage has fallen to around 50 percent of crop acreage. Part of that dip may have been caused by weather conditions that complicated conservation tillage in the last few springs. However, the numbers also point to a discouraging trend away from continuous no-till toward "rotational tillage."
Instead of sticking with no-till or other conservation tillage methods throughout their crop rotations, some farmers have been alternating tillage and no-till. While this strategy can bring soil erosion rates down to acceptable levels on flat fields, it doesn't offer all the soil quality benefits of long-term conservation tillage, such as increases in soil organic matter, more balanced soil biology, and better water infiltration. Even infrequent tillage can erase these significant production and soil-enhancing benefits.
Farmers are using no-till for two-thirds of the state's soybean acres, but when they rotate to corn or wheat many are using tillage. Only about a third of the state's corn is planted using no-till or other conservation tillage methods. About 40 percent of the state's wheat is planted with conservation tillage.
Producing competitive yields with conservation tillage can be more challenging with corn than with soybeans because corn can't fill in thin stands as well as soybeans can. Farmers can improve their results with careful management, including attention to seed placement, use of seed treatments and starter fertilizer, and practices such as strip tillage, which can improve the seedbed.