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Cover, companion crops draw praise

Gail Fuller admits he didn’t harvest much of a corn crop this year. But the Emporia farmer did manage to chop some silage in July and he actually harvested 60 acres of corn planted late and into cover crops, he told attendees of this year’s No-till on the Plains annual winter conference in Salina Jan. 24-26.

“The thing we saw was that companion planting has real possibilities, because we need to keep the ground covered all the time. The companion crops proved their worth last summer when we hit that stretch of day after day over 100 degrees [F]. The corn that had a companion crop didn’t roll up and stayed greener. The companion crops provided shade, and kept the soil temperature cooler.”

He said he immediately planted more cover crop after chopping the corn. He he plans to plant back to corn next year, with four perennials covering the ground at planting time. “I’m looking at full bore ahead on companion crops,” he said.

Key Points

• Emporia no-tiller is a big believer in companion crops.

• He says founding fathers understood the importance of soil.

• Done right, cover crops and grazing reduce the need for chemicals.

He said a number of crops do well in that role, including winter barley with clover, or winter canola that can be pressed for oil or used for feed. He also noted that biodiesel made from canola oil did not jell at temperatures as cold as minus 20 degrees F.

Fuller, who titled his presentation “Things Our Forefathers Didn’t Teach Us … Or Did They?” pointed out that many of the earliest agriculturalists in the United States were conscious of the need to protect and improve the nation’s soil.

George Washington, in 1796, wrote that if “gardeners and farmers were taught how to improve the old instead of going in pursuit of new and productive soil, they would make those acres, which now scarcely yield them anything, turn out beneficial.”

And Fuller quoted this warning from Hugh Bennett and W.C. Lowdermilk in the 1930s: “History is largely a record of human struggle to wrest the land from nature, because man relies for sustenance on the products of the soil. So direct is the relationship between soil erosion, the productivity of the land, and the prosperity of the people, that the history of mankind, to a considerable degree, may be interpreted in terms of the soil and what has happened as the result of human use.”

What he has learned from continuous no-till on his farm in northeast Kansas, he said, are these points:

Residue has infinite value. It holds moisture and it reduces soil temperature.

Soil must be fed, so give it sources of carbon and lots of root systems.

Companion plants help grains grow. Plant cereals, grasses and broadleaves that add to the profile a growing grain crop needs.

Livestock add value, because forage plants add residue and forage growth can provide a stockpile of hay for winter.

He said he has also learned that it is not the weight of cattle on forage crops that creates a compaction problem, it is the length of time that they are there.

“Even in wet areas, if you cycle those animals on and off, move them all the time, you don’t get compaction,” he said. “Of course if you have a big rain event, you will have a problem wherever they are standing at the time; but overall, if you move them fast, you are in good shape.”

Fuller finished up his presentation with observations on how cover crops, livestock grazing and continuous coverage of the land can pay dividends with reduced use of fertilizers and chemicals.

He has eliminated use of pesticides and fungicides for the past two years, he said. Also, he cut nitrogen application on corn by 25% last year and, provided he gets enough rain for a good cover crop of legumes, will cut it another 25% this year.

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COMPANIONS COUNT: Emporia farmer Gail Fuller tells No-till on the Plains attendees that planting companion plants is working for him.

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Friends with benefits: A farmer uses A no-till planter to plant corn into a cover crop of barley in Washington County, Va.

This article published in the March, 2012 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.