Each year the Steuben County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), in conjunction with the Indiana Conservation Partnership (ICP), completes spring and fall tillage transect surveys. 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, make 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 algal bloom 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, this tillage transect allows the opportunity for the SWCD to observe and discuss the conditions, needs and accomplishments related to the natural resources in the county.
The Spring transect is conducted during the month of June or July. Spring 2020 data shows the use of different tillage practices for corn and soybeans across Steuben County (Figure 1.2). The use of No-Till decreased significantly from 25% in 2019 to 15% in the 2020 spring transect for corn; soybeans showed an increase from 73% in 2019 to 85% in spring 2020. The 2020 spring transect shows the use of mulch tillage (conservation tillage) rates increased from 9% in 2019 compared to 24% in 2020 (Figure 1.2).
Several factors can contribute to an increase in No-Till percentages; one potential factor could be drought, 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, turnips, or annual rye grass can be just as, or more effective than, conventional tillage in the long term. The heavy rain fall in the Fall of 2018 and Spring of 2019 could have contributed to the higher number of no-till due to machinery not being able to get into fields. No till percentages declined in 2020 due to drier weather patterns that contributed to more favorable conservation tillage soil conditions.
Spring 2021 data (Figure 1.3) is shown in a new format; the reporting procedures changed in spring of 2021. Now, “mulch till” and “reduced till” are combined into the “reduced till” category. To make proper comparisons, that data was combined in the 2020 numbers. Thus, in corn no-till increased from 15% to 26%; reduced till decreased from 83% to 71%; and conventional till increased from 2% to 3%. In soybeans no-till decreased from 85% to 81%; reduced till increased from 14% to 17%; and conventional till increased from 1% to 2%.
It is encouraging to see the increase in no-till practices in corn fields; it may indicate program success in educating producers on the benefits of these practices. The percentage changes in soybean tillage from 2020 to 2021 do not show statistically significant variations. It is still too early to tell if the use of No-Till is on a dramatic increase 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.