When it became apparent that the dry spell many Ohio growers experienced last year would become the worst drought in 50 years, David Brandt wasn't worried about how well corn and soybeans on his 1,150-acre farm would fare. The Carroll, Ohio, farmer instead relied upon a natural form of insurance that left the soils in his fields protected against the devastating effects of the record heat and drought that decimated many farmers nationwide in 2012.

Using conservation tillage methods such as no-till and planting cover crops – including radishes and Austrian winter peas in 15-in. alternating rows and an eight-species cover crop blend – allowed the ground temperatures on his farm to remain in a healthy range of 80-90° F while bare ground temperatures in tilled fields reached as high as 130°, Brandt says.

The cover crops also helped retain higher soil moisture levels to help Brandt produce 168 bu. of corn per acre, compared to around 100 bu./acre many growers using conventional tillage produced as a result of drought, he says.

"We were impressed with what we saw and I'm sure that our cover crops helped to create a healthier soil that helped us grow healthy crops during the drought," Brandt says. "Whereas growers who used conventional tillage had stressed corn and lower yields, conservation tillage prevented the same from happening to our fields.

"Cover crops allow us to try to mimic Mother Nature by keeping the soil covered as long as possible. And adding more species in your cover crops results in more diversity in the soil with deeper root systems, which helped our crops grow better."

Brandt is just one of some 900 participants who are expected to attend the Conservation Tillage and Technology Conference March 5-6 offered by Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

The annual conference will offer the latest research, insight, tips and techniques on conservation tillage, including cover crops, no-till, soil quality, seeding technology, water quality and nutrient management, says Randall Reeder, a retired OSU Extension agricultural engineer and a conference organizer.

Growers' interest in conservation tillage has increased significantly in recent years as they become more focused on maintaining and building their soils.

"Too many farmers have taken what goes on below the surface for granted," Reeder says. "They have fertilizer and other inputs to help crops grow, but in the last few years have begun to pay more attention to soil quality, which includes chemical and physical properties and the biology of soil.

"Farmers are recognizing the value of having living roots in the soil year-round, not just during the five months or so that corn and soybeans are growing."

Growers are also benefiting from the economics of using less machinery, making fewer trips across the field and the environmental impact of less runoff and erosion, he says.

"Farmers want to leave their land better than they found it and are realizing that the most valuable resource on any farm is the soil," Reeder says.

Participation in the CTC conference may help growers achieve similar results as Brandt, even in extreme weather conditions such as drought, said Jim Hoorman, an OSU Extension educator and an assistant professor studying cover crops and water quality issues.