Farm Progress

Save Soil, Oil and Toil | ECO Farming Builds on Natural Soil Cycle to Improve Yields, Reduce Inputs

Keena Lykins 1

October 1, 2011

7 Min Read


Ohio farmer Dave Brandt’s most important crop this year is one he won’t harvest. Brandt plants radishes and other cover crops as part of the ECO (see and farming system to keep his soil healthy and his farm profitable. “ECO farming stands for Ecological farming, Continuous living cover and Other best management practices," says Jim Hoorman, assistant professor with Ohio State University (OSU) Extension. "In other words, trying to eliminate tillage as much as possible."

ECO is an alternative to no-till or full tillage, developed by OSUExtension, in conjunction with the NRCS and the Ohio No-till Council.

ECO farming is an integrated system that incorporates a variety of conservation techniques that rebuilds soil organic matter by covering the soil with live plants throughout the year. The system has developed over the past several decades.

“A healthy soil reduces pest and fungus problems because it is well balanced,” Brandt says.

Native ecosystems have diverse living roots in the soil year-round, and earthworms and other microorganisms are the only “tillage,” says Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with NRCS in Greensboro, NC. The system uses legumes, cover crops, rotation, crop diversity, no-till planting and natural fertilizers – such as manure and decomposed plant material – to help rebuild the soil.

Many growers find they have better-than-average yields while lowering their input costs, Archuleta says. “Healthy soils cycle nutrients more efficiently. You don’t need chemical fertilizers if your soil is functioning.”

For example, tillage radishes grow up to 24-in. roots that break up soil to improve water infiltration and add soil nutrients when they decompose. The nutrients feed soil microbes, keeping them active and at work in the soil all year long, he says.

 “Healthy soils save oil,”Archuleta says. “Healthy soils clean the air and water, reduce flooding, improve water efficiency and save energy by reducing the need for man-made fertilizers and pesticides. If you heal the soil, you fix a whole lot of our resource issues.”

Jim Hoorman, Mercer County Ohio Extension specialist and OSU assistant professor, says it takes three to five years for the ECO farming production system to take root on a farm. But once it does, it may solve nutrient issues associated with hypoxia and eutrophication. It also rebuilds soil organic matter, which reduces fertilizer and fuel consumption, he says.

Each percentage of soil organic matter holds roughly 1,000 lbs. of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), says Hoorman. Tilled soils contain an average of 1-3% soil organic matter. Land that’s been managed according to ECO farming practices may be able to increase soil organic matter to 4-5%.

ECO farming enables Brandt to put out corn for about half the cost of what his neighbors, who use conventional tillage, spend. Much of that savings comes from reducing his fertilizer use by 80% and his herbicide use by half, he says.

Forty years ago, he began farming 90 acres of land east of Columbus, OH. He didn’t know what ECO farming was, but he knew he had to do something different. His ground was “yellow,” he says, and had less than 1% soil organic matter.

“We were just trying to lower our input costs.”

Brandt, who today grows corn and soybeans on 900 acres in and around Carroll, OH, says his soil is now 4.5% organic matter. He sprays herbicide once in the spring and replaces commercial fertilizer with manure and a legume/grass cover-crop mix.

How it's done

He plants his cover in 15-in. rows, alternating between peas and radishes, with cereal rye or hairy vetch to provide a green cover through spring. The cover crops cost $14-35/acre to plant, depending upon the multi-species mix.

“We want the ground to have a green cover so that we don’t lose the nutrients that are available from these covers and holding the soil.”

His inputs for corn, including seed, are $135/acre for fields that have been in this cycle for more than five years, Brandt says.

“Radishes become my mini-storage tanks. At 2 lbs./acre, these radishes store 225 lbs. N, 23 lbs. P and 210 lbs. potassium. That’s what we found in the soil around these radishes when they decompose.”

Although the no-till, continuous living-cover system has passionate adherents, Jerry Hatfield, ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment laboratory director, says it’s hard to get past many growers’ short-term focus.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown didn’t have a long-term view when he happened upon the ECO system 15 years ago. Instead, he says, four years of failed harvests because of drought and hail forced him to change the way he farmed because he couldn’t get a loan to cover input costs on the 2,000 acres he farms near Bismarck.

“I needed to find an alternative,” he says. “I tried cover crops and realized then that it’s all about soil health. We’ve totally eliminated (the need for) commercial fertility in the land we have in the system. The soil itself provides the nutrients that are needed for a cash crop.”

By concentrating on soil health, the organic matter on his land has increased from 1-2% to a little more than 4%. The ECO farming system enables Brown to grow corn for $1.51/bu., he says.

 In addition to being no-till, Brown uses cover-crop cocktails to return carbon to the soil. He also runs cattle on some of his cropland in the winter months. They consume about a third of the cover crop and trample the rest of it into the ground where it is consumed by soil microorganisms.

For growers considering a move to ECO farming, Brown says, “The first three years are the hardest, but once you see the benefits, you won’t go back.”

The system is not without its growing pains, Hoorman agrees. Conventional-tillage growers – and even some no-till farmers – will need to forgo some short-term profits in order to get long-term profits,” he says. “But once it is established, the system makes the soil very, very efficient.”

Hoorman recommends that farmers first tile and level their fields. They also need to concentrate on establishing the soil microbes before cutting back on inputs.

“Once you get the drainage in, the field level and the pH up and the system started,” he says. “we’re finding you don’t have to mess with the system much.”

Celina, OH, farmer Jeff Rasawehr, who’s moved land into the ECO farming system for the past three to five years, agrees. “We’ve had a few kinks,” he says, “but they are kinks, not roadblocks.”

He farms nearly 2,500 acres and estimates his land is $200/acre more profitable than his counterparts in a conventional-tillage system. This profit comes from lower inputs and more efficient use of water and nutrients, which improves his yields.

“Evidence is suggesting that you put about 2 in. or more of accessible water in the soil,” he added. “This year when we got the dry periods, the further my farms were into an ECO farming system, the better they looked.”

“You can put an economic value on that,” Hoorman adds.


Roots as remedy

Year-round living roots are the heart of the ECO farming production system, says Jim Hoorman, Mercer County Ohio Extension specialist. Living roots support 1,000-2,000 times more soil microbes than soil without growing roots, and healthy microbial populations recycle many nutrients and improve the soil, he says.

ECO farming integrates a variety of conservation practices to mimic nature, including:

  • Continuous no-till

  • A diverse cover crop to strengthen soil biology;

  • Best management practices

“In an ideal soil, we have 45% mineral – the sand, the silt, the clay,” Hoorman says. In an ideal soil, we like to see 5% soil organic matter. The other 50% is actually pore space (25% air and 25% water).”

After a century or more of intensive cultivation, 60-80% of our soil organic matter is gone, he says, and most soils now only have 1-3% soil organic matter and much less pore space due to soil compaction.

Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with the National Resources Conversation Services in Greensboro, NC, says, “(Tilled) soils are dominated by bacteria, which stay in a compacted state and use carbon inefficiently, allowing nutrients to leach out of the soil.”

No-till systems with a continuous living cover stabilize carbon loss, he explains. Soil porosity and water infiltration increase.

A diverse mix of cover crops is a very powerful tool when it comes to rebuilding soil organic matter and porosity because of the multiple species working together to activate soil biology, Archuleta says.

He recommends Austrian winter peas and radishes with grasses, such as hairy vetch or cereal rye, to rebuild the soil.

Every plant has a chemical signature to attract the right microbes to carry out metabolic function, he says. These enzymes help increase nutrient cycling in the soil. Diversity of plants equals diversity of microbes.

“The best weed control a farmer can have is another plant,” he says. “Diversity can keep a single weed or disease from becoming dominant.”

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like