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by Carrie Muehling, WJBC radio

Wet springs the past two years have caused an increase in crop tillage, according to a new study from the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

The 2011 Illinois Soil Conservation Transect Survey reveals that use of no-till crop production systems has fallen five percentage points since 2009 to 24.2 percent of fields.

The farmers who switched production systems have not abandoned soil conservation practices entirely, however. While the use of conventional tillage increased during this period, so did the use of mulch-till, a practice that leaves at least 30 percent of the residue from the previous crop on the ground and, much like no-till, protects soil from erosion.

"Because of wet field conditions recently, additional tillage has been required before planting to alleviate soil compaction and level tire ruts," Land and Water Resources Specialist Alan Gulso said. "It appears conservation-minded farmers decided to switch to mulch-till instead, which is a minimal tillage system. Whether this is the start of a trend or farmers will return to no-till with more normal planting conditions remains to be seen."

No-till farming still is the conservation practice of choice among Illinois farmers. However, the gap between it and mulch-till has narrowed considerably. The survey shows 21.4 percent of fields now are planted using mulch-till, up from 20.7 percent in 2009 and 16.4 percent in 2006. No-till usage has declined during the same span from a record-high of 33.2 percent in 2006 to the current 24.2 percent.

"Conservation tillage is good for the environment because it prevents soil erosion and improves water quality," Acting Agriculture Director Jim Larkin said. "It also is good for farmers because it preserves fertile farmland and ensures our agricultural production is sustainable for generations to come."

The reduction in acres farmed by no-till has increased erosion rates from those reported in 2009. The acres farmed below the tolerable soil loss level, or the amount of soil that can be replaced naturally by the decomposition of crop residue, has slipped from 85% in 2009 to 84% this year.

The biennial Soil Erosion and Crop Tillage Transect Survey was completed with assistance from Illinois' 98 soil and water conservation districts and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Data was collected last spring and summer from more than 49,000 fields across the state.

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