Each year the Steuben SWCD, in conjunction with the Indiana Conservation Partnership (ICP), complete a spring and fall tillage transect survey. The tillage transect is a windshield survey that collects information on tillage practices, residue cover, and crops planted from 280 points across the county. Data gathered from the survey is used to track cropland use, conservation cropping systems, cover crop adoption and crop residue which can be used to estimate soil erosion rates.
The increase in demand for Indiana’s row crop production, coupled with the ICP’s focus on soil health management systems, makes tracking trends in cropping systems an important and valuable activity, especially in the face of reports on agriculture’s role in the Gulf Hypoxia and Great Lakes issues. Tillage transects are a tool that can be used to see how well our coordinated efforts toward soil health management systems are adopted by Hoosier farmers.
In addition to the data that is gathered, the opportunity for conservation partners to observe and discuss the conditions, needs and accomplishments related to the natural resources in the county is an invaluable effort.
The 2017 spring transect was conducted during the second week of June. Data shows the use of different tillage practices for corn and soybeans across Steuben County (Figure 1.1). The use of No-Till increased significantly from 36% in 2014 to 67% in the 2016 spring transect for corn; soybeans showed a decrease from 71% in 2014 to 67% in spring 2016. The 2017 fall transect shows the use of different tillage practices with an increase from 67% in the spring to 77% in the fall for corn and an increase in soybeans from 67% in spring to 84% in fall 2015 (Figure 1.2)
Several factors contribute to increase in No-Till percentages; one potential factor could be the drought in 2012, which could cause extensive compaction due to loss of soil moisture. Though tillage is the traditional way to reduce compaction, extensive tillage can actually increase soil compaction over time. The use of cover crops such as oil seed radishes, turn-ups, or annual rye grass can be just as, or more effective in the long-term, as conventional tillage.
Another potential factor could be the high commodity prices for corn and soybeans. With current market prices at all-time highs, several farmers may be attempting to maximize yields by preparing the most suitable seed beds for plant growth. Though preparing seed beds through extensive tillage may provide increase yields initially, over time yields will fall off with continuous tillage due to the breakdown of Soil Organic Matter which retains nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) and water in soil.
It is still too early to tell if the use of No-Till is on a dramatic decline in use, or if recent data is a periodical fluctuation. We will continue to monitor and educate landowners about the tillage use across Steuben County in the coming years to better understand what tillage practices are being used and how fields are being managed.