Grain farmers who want to increase the organic matter content in their soils can consider a move to ECO Farming, says an Ohio State University Extension educator.

ECO Farming includes the use of eternal no-till, continuous living cover and other best management practices. It's not only economically viable, but also ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable, said Jim Hoorman, an assistant professor studying cover crops and water quality issues.

The technique uses a combination of cover crops and no-till worked into a corn, soybean or wheat rotation to more efficiently use the inputs farmers add to their soils. Hoorman said it reduces the amount of nutrients they may need to buy in the future.

"Fertilizer prices are going up, soil quality is going down, and we're losing soil nutrients to Lake Erie," Hoorman said. "What cover crops do for us in ECO farming, mimics Mother Nature by tying up the nutrients and carrying them forward in the soil to the next planting instead of resulting in soil nutrient runoff into our streams.

"ECO Farming allows growers to work more with Mother Nature, who has been doing this for millions of years. We want to mimic natural processes as much as possible."

Hoorman will discuss the use of ECO Farming during a workshop March 6 at the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference. The workshop, which begins at 10:50 a.m.

While most soil statewide has anywhere from one to three percent organic matter, using ECO Farming can help increase those levels, translating to money saved for growers, Hoorman said.

"By growing two crops year round, the soil organic matter increases due to the increased root mass coupled with long-term no-till," he said.

In fact, Hoorman said he saw a 6- to 9-bushel soybean yield difference last year in Mercer County in fields with cereal rye as a cover crop versus no cover crops. In corn, a 10- to 30-bushel yield advantage was seen when a winter legume cover crop was used.

"ECO Farming restores the organic matter because we have live plants in the soil for 12 months a year as compared with conventional farming, which utilizes soil with live plants for only four to five months a year and requires growers to spend more money on fertilizers and herbicides," he said. "The input costs for conventional farming can be very expensive, but if we do it the way Mother Nature does it, a lot of these problems that we're spending millions to fix will start to solve themselves."

For example, Ohio soil has lost some 60 to 80 percent of organic matter over the past 100 years, which has left the soil denser and more compacted, Hoorman said.

As a result, growers are now paying some 75 cents per pound for nitrogen. So a farmer who uses 200 pounds of nitrogen but gets only 30 to 40 percent efficiency is essentially wasting large sums of money, he explained.

"With cover crops, we can tie nutrients up in the organic matter and begin to take credit for those nutrients," Hoorman said. "After a few years of using cover crops, we can get the soil stabilized and use less fertilizer and have more nutrients available for crop production. Every one percent of soil organic matter holds 1,000 pounds of nitrogen and about 100 pounds of phosphorus."

The Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference is sponsored by OSU Extension, OARDC, Northwest Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Ohio No-Till Council.

The full schedule and registration information can be found at http://ctc.osu.edu. Participants may register online or by mail. Registration for the full conference is $80 (or $60 for one day) if received by Feb. 24. Information also is available in county offices of OSU Extension.