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 http://bit.ly/rspLDN andhttp://bit.ly/ok3Y1J) 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.