Cover crops stifle weeds organically

An aerial-applied seeding of a wheat and red clover
cover crop mixture is helping to suppress weeds, reduce soil erosion and provide other environmental benefits on 200 acres of certified organic cropland for a farming family in southeast Iowa. The 200 acres helps feed their 150-head certified organic dairy herd in Van Buren County near Milton.

Wells Dairy, not to be confused with the makers of Blue Bunny Ice Cream, is a father-son operation that first certified some cropland as organic in 1993. They certified the dairy as organic in 2008. Paul and son Jason now farm about 1,000 acres of certified organic pasture and cropland.

Key Points

• Cover crops suppress weeds for organic dairy.

• Growing row crops organically creates a weed issue.

• Wheat, red clover cover crop is aerially seeded into soybeans.

Certified organic crop producers must grow row crops no more than three years in a five-year rotation. This isn’t an issue for the Wells family. According to Paul, their rotation is typically soybeans-corn-soybeans-small grain and then multiple years of hay. “Our rotation will never be a five-year rotation,” says Paul. “We’ll always grow hay multiple years for grazing.”

A major issue with growing row crops organically is weed invasion. Without herbicides, how do you control weeds? Jason says their fields get particularly weedy by the third consecutive row-crop year. That’s where the cover crops help.

Last fall, he and his dad aerially applied a wheat and red clover mix into standing soybeans. They hired an airplane to disperse the seed. Seeding the cover crop this way establishes it without tillage. The cover crop reduces weeds and erosion, limits nitrogen leaching, increases soil organic matter, and improves soil quality.

Cover crops fill the bill

“We are very happy with the wheat and clover,” says Jason. “We tried to plant a rye cover crop in the past, and it got away from us.”

With no experience applying cover crops aerially, Jason says he was skeptical during the winter months whether the wheat and clover mixture for a cover crop would come up this spring, but he was pleasantly surprised. “If you were out here this February, you could barely tell we seeded cover crops this year, but they just shot up this spring and grew,” he says.

A major reason why they aerial-applied the wheat and clover mix was a wetter-than-normal fall, which included a late soybean harvest. The cover crops were applied in late October, more than a month later than recommended. And with a wet spring in 2010, the Wells family didn’t cultivate the cover crops and plant corn until mid-June. They plan to aerial-apply cover crops again this year, but this time they’ll do it in late August or early September.

These farmers offset the cost of applying cover crops by signing up for USDA’s Organic Initiative through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. Administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the program offers certified organic producers assistance for applying new conservation practices to treat a natural resource concern, and offers those participants who are transitioning to organic agriculture assistance to protect natural resources while meeting their certification goals.

Using EQIP and CSP

The Wells’ contract with the EQIP Organic Initiative includes 300 acres of cover crops and 730 acres of pest management through 2012.

“With the wet ground, we wouldn’t have even applied cover crops without the assistance of the Organic Initiative through EQIP,” says Jason. “It really worked for us and helped our operation through a wet fall and wet spring, which can be tough for organic farmers.”

In addition to their EQIP contracts, the Wells family also signed a Conservation Stewardship Program, or CSP, contract this year, including 590 acres of cropland and 30 acres of pasture. CSP encourages producers to address resource concerns by undertaking additional conservation activities and improving and maintaining existing conservation systems.

“Their CSP contract includes monitoring key grazing areas on pasture and plant tissue testing to improve nitrogen management on cropland,” says Aaron Musselman, NRCS conservationist in Van Buren County.

The Wells family sells milk to Organic Valley in Wisconsin. The father-son partnership has been going strong for 20 years.

Johnson is a public affairs specialist for NRCS in Des Moines. This is the first in a series of five articles featuring producers who have taken advantage of USDA’s EQIP Organic Initiative in Iowa.

Controlling fly predators

No formal Integrated Pest Management Plan is completed yet for the dairy farming operation of Jason and Paul Wells through the EQIP Organic Initiative, but the family has found a way to decrease their pesky fly problem without using chemical insecticides.

They use Fly Predators, a trademarked product. These tiny, completely biteless and stingless insects destroy the next generation of pest flies in the cocoon stage. According to Jason, the predators never become a pest themselves and go virtually unnoticed.

The Wells first tried Fly Predators two years ago, and according to Paul’s wife, Jayne, “The reduction in flies has been amazing.” Because flies produce nine times faster than Fly Predators, Jason says he adds supplemental Fly Predators every two weeks during warm months to keep the population in balance.

Paul says they are a good investment, especially for organic farmers. “The Fly Predators cost us $2,200 to $2,400 per year, but that is comparable to what we would spend on chemical spray,” he notes, “and they work better!”

Learn more

For more information about the EQIP Organic Initiative, go online to
or visit your local NRCS office located at the USDA Service Center.


GOOD GRAZING: Cattle graze at least 120 days per year in a certified organic dairy operation. Pasture grass was growing well in the Wells’ rotational grazing system after a very wet spring this year in southeast Iowa.


DAIRY FARMERS: Jason Wells (left) influenced his dad, Paul, (right) to transition to certified organic production for their dairy herd.

COVER CROP: The Wells family aerial-applied a wheat and red clover mix cover crop into standing soybeans last year.

This article published in the August, 2010 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.