Transitioning to Sustainable Agriculture Using Continuous No-Till and Cover Crops

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, wheat


  • Crop Production: cover crops, no-till
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement, soil stabilization, wildlife
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Soil Management: nutrient mineralization, soil chemistry, organic matter, soil physics, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities

    Proposal summary:

    Problem: Our farms have three major problems with long-term no-till production: 1) Transitioning to no-till corn, 2) Low fertilizer and manure nutrient efficiency combined with high input costs for fertilizer, fuel, and herbicides, and 3) High soil compaction, poor soil structure, and soil erosion.

    No-till soybeans and wheat works great on our farms but trying to make no-till corn work has been a struggle. It typically takes us 7 to 9 years to get no-till corn to work which is too long and we struggle financially during those years. Our nitrogen fertilizer and manure nutrient efficiency is low since we often apply manure in the fall, but often cannot find the nutrient benefits back in the spring. Fuel, fertilizer, and herbicide costs have been high and we are looking for ways to decrease these costs. Our soils are very tight and we often have standing water for days after a rain. Soil compaction is a major issue and soil erosion is a problem, even on relatively flat soils. Regulators (Ohio EPA and Ohio Department of Agriculture) have an issue with manure nutrient runoff (N and P) to Grand Lake St Marys and the Wabash River. We would like to get these guys off our backs and improve the profitability of our farms while improving the environment.

    Goal: We have been working with Jim Hoorman, Ohio State University Extension Educator who is working with cover crops and no-till. Our goal is to use cover crops to improve nutrient efficiency with manure and fertilizer and decrease the transition time when converting to no-till. We would all like to be completely no-till within a four year time period. We believe that we could greatly reduce our fuel and fertilizer costs by storing more N and P in the soil, possibly decrease our herbicide costs, decrease soil compaction and improve soil structure, and decrease our soil erosion by using cover crops. Our goal is to have something live and growing year round on our farms which we think that is the definition of sustainability. We need assistance in finding the right cover crops and in making the transition to using cover crops with no-till to improve both our farm profitability and the environment.

    Solution: Our basic rotation is wheat-corn-soybeans-corn-soybeans. We want to test several cover crops after each crop. After wheat, there are many options including oilseed or tillage radish (to improve soil structure), or legumes like cowpeas, winter peas, sweet clover (all three produce 80-150# N), or red clover seed (perhaps 40-60# N) to make or absorb excess nitrogen. After corn, we are basically limited to cereal rye. However, cereal rye and oilseed radish both absorb manure nutrients especially N and P. We plan to let the cereal rye grow tall in the spring, no-till soybeans into standing cereal rye, then kill the cereal rye after the soybeans come up. The cereal rye will decrease soil compaction, absorb fertilizer and manure nutrients, and increase our soil organic matter levels. Since soybeans are a legume, the cereal rye should not compete with the soybeans for nitrogen. After soybeans, we would like to plant either winter peas (60-80# N) which will survive the winter and possibly produce 60-80# N or annual rye grass (which can absorb manure nutrients like N and P). We plan to plant the corn no-till into the standing winter pea legume and then kill the winter peas after they bloom to maximize N production To improve cover crop survivability, we will plant both corn and soybean varieties with slightly shorter crop maturities. We also plan to experiment with a new machine that is designed to chop off corn tassles above the ear at black layer (early to mid September) and broadcast cereal rye which gains another 6 weeks of growth and improve dry down of the corn ear. Keeping the soil covered with a live crop will decrease weed pressure and use less herbicide. Live growing crops year round improve soil structure and decrease soil erosion. This sustainable practice will also improve organic matter accumulation and nutrient storage and nutrient efficiency.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.