As the winter months grind along, serious forage producers often seek comfort in determining what new varieties of alfalfa they will seed the next spring and where they will be planted. Just as important as the “what” and “where” is the question of “how” alfalfa will be established. Specifically, will a companion crop be used?
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when someone says “cover crops”? Stopping soil erosion, right? It took Barry Fisher nearly an hour during a tour of cover crop plots at Roger Wenning’s farm to mention soil savings.
The Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts recently honored five outstanding families. Each received a Conservation Farmer of the Year award.
One of the most important crops is the one not to harvest, but to protect and improve the soil.
Seeding cover crops to enhance basic rotations is a new frontier in Nebraska cropping systems, according to its adherents. Interest has grown in the past few years in trying seedings of one or two cover crops or a cocktail blend of several after wheat harvest in summer or even after taking off soybeans or corn in the fall. As yet, acreage remains limited.
A recent survey from Iowa State University estimates that only 15% of Illinois farmers planted a cover crop between 2000 and 2005.
According to an increasing number of Iowa farmers, agronomists and soil conservationists, cover crops such as rye, wheat and clover are environmentally beneficial, and with proper management won’t inhibit yields in various crop systems, including no-till and organic farming.
Cover crops can help offset feed costs for cattle, hold precious nitrogen in place and add important organic matter to soils, increasing their ability to soak up water during heavy rains. The potential uses of cover crops are many, and new momentum for this practice has increased dramatically.
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.
Taking time this winter to design your cover crop plan will increase the successful establishment of the crop and potentially allow for improved staggering of fall harvest. Fall is a busy time even in a normal year. Harvesting, handling grain, fall fertility and tillage concerns are priorities. Cover crops rank about fifth. It is tough to get a cover crop established in the fall with a tight schedule for the timing.
A diverse mix of small grains and cover crops helps spring come a
little earlier on the Arnaud family farm near Monett. In fact, there’s something green and growing on just about every acre that Jim Arnaud farms, just about every month of the year.
On our farm we have used yellow blossom sweet clover for many years as a plow-down crop to build our soil. This vigorous, sweet-smelling biennial legume has provided our fields with organic matter and nitrogen since we began organic farming.
The Morton County, N.D., Soil Conservation District and Bismarck State College Farm Management Education received a Conservation Innovation Grant. The three year project studies the use of intensive cover crops with no-till farming to increase production on highly erodible, low-quality land.
Winter can be a tough time for cover crops. Snow, rain, ice and cold temperatures can really push these plants to their limits. Cover crops are the green plants that cover the ground between harvest of a cash crop in the fall, such as corn or soybeans, and planting of a new cash crop during the following spring.
Some members of Practical Farmers of Iowa have been experimenting with adding cover crops to their farming systems since the on-farm research program, the Cooperators Program, formally began in 1987.
Some farmers are concerned about winter cover crops being a potential host for Goss’s wilt.
If you were going to build a road, how would you do it? Hans Kok says most road builders start with a sandy loam soil if possible, wet it down, then disk it many times. You’ve got a soil at its most vulnerable time, and a tool that compacts soil.
You don’t read often about a tool that has never been tried. But Mike Shuter and sons Patrick and Brian, Frankton, have a good record at developing innovative equipment. At press time, their latest tool was ready to rock ‘n’ roll but hadn’t officially been in the field yet.
Dan Gillespie, Hudson, S.D., was one of seven farmers who received South Dakota’s Soil Conservation Award in 2010. One reason he was recognized was for his use of cover crops to help control weeds, improve soil health and produce plant nutrients.
Two years ago when Jamie Foster was moving from Florida to become a Texas AgriLife Research forage agronomist in South Texas, her job almost hit her in the face — literally.
Trying something new and innovative is always easier when you can learn from someone else’s experience. For a small group of innovative farmers experimenting with cover crops in Pottawattamie County in western Iowa, that someone else is Pete Hobson.
Mark Pokorny is one of 10 farmers working with Iowa Learning Farms and Practical Farmers of Iowa on a project comparing corn and soybean yields following a winter rye cover crop. Located near Clutier in Tama County, he began hosting a demonstration site in fall 2009 for the cover crop working group.
Last fall an estimated 40,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Iowa. A number of Iowa farmers planted a cover crop, usually rye, in fields to help protect against soil erosion over winter. Those that had enough soil moisture had a good stand of cover crops, while others had little to no fall germination.
What’s the best approach to restoring a field that flooded during the summer? Chris Nelsen, Mission Hill, S.D., says he isn’t an expert at it, but has some experience.
Cover crops have been around as a sound cropping and soil health practice for years. But in the past few years, they’ve been steadily growing in popularity throughout the Midwest. The practice would probably be growing faster if there wasn’t so much head-scratching about how to get seed established in fall.
Ray Styer knows how to build on something patiently to make it pay off. That is the way he treats his soil, which he continually improves by using a careful
cover-crop selection over decades.
In research plots at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems in Goldsboro, N.C., George Naderman, a retired Extension soil specialist and an associate professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, measured from 100 to 200 pounds more of nitrogen in the top 5 inches of soil where conservation tillage had been used for six crop years, compared to conventional tillage. Researchers had put on the same amount of N on both fields during operations.
Cover crops seem to be taking the Midwest by storm. Here’s why these farmers are sold on them.
Cover crops can help conserve moisture, says Kris Nichols, research soil microbiologist with the USDA Agriculture Research Service, Mandan, N.D.
Nearly 90,000 acres of cover crops were planted in Iowa in the fall of 2012. That estimate is based on data from several sources including sales figures from major cover crop seed companies and cost-shared acres through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s EQIP program, and the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship’s state cost-share funding.
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.
One of the biggest issues for farmers in areas where drought can be a ever-present problem — like most of Kansas — has been how summer cover crops perform, and what kind of moisture they take out of the soil profile when the weather turns hot and dry.
Drought throws a wrench into our best strategies. It can ruin a market garden. It robs our livestock of needed forages. It throws plant growth cycles off. It is difficult to deal with.
Eventually, bare ground in a farm field will be a rare sight, predicts Steve Groff, a cover crop researcher and no-till farmer from Holtwood, Pa. As farmers become aware of the benefits of using cover crops, more of them are protecting and improving their soil with cover crops, he explains. “The trend is upward, so you’ll probably be doing it one day or another, one decade or another.”
Looking across the 14 different cover crop plots on Tom Finkenbine’s farm, it’s natural to wonder which one’s the best. But no one crop will be best for every situation.
Paul Brown is a young man who could be making big bucks in North Dakota’s oil fields. But he figures he’s making more per hour mob-grazing yearling beef cattle on his family’s Bismarck, N.D., ranch.
Cereal rye and manure, when combined, provide benefits to each other, resulting in greater overall benefits to livestock producers, their bottom line and the environment.
When Bryan Jorgensen turns his family’s agricultural enterprise, Jorgensen Land and Cattle, over to the next generation, he wants the fields he now manages to be in better condition and more productive than when they started raising crops there in the early 1900s.
Cronin Farms, Gettysburg, S.D., is making some big gains in soil organic matter. It’s risen from 2% soil organic matter to 4% organic matter in recent years — which is worth about $1,100 per acre by some estimates.
Mitch and Andy Hoenhause, Lisbon, N.D., are doing some things on their farm that might be worth watching.
Andy and Mitch Hoenhause’s success with cover crops has encouraged the Lisbon, N.D., brothers to try some new ways to get the cover crops planted on more of their acres.
The recent mid-April storm reminded many southern Iowa farmers why there is never a good time for tillage — even after a dry winter and the warmest March on record. Up to 8 inches of rain, along with strong winds and tornadoes, hit southern Iowa on April 14, causing property and cropland damage. In many cases, crop inputs like corn seed and fertilizer washed away.
The most productive soils overwhelmingly have features in common; certain physical, chemical and biological properties that allow them to function well and produce abundant biomass.
The benefits of no-till farming and management for soil health were on full display Sept. 5, when the South Central Kansas Residue Alliance made its annual summer crop tour of eight fields in Harper County to see firsthand how they fared at the end of a second blistering-hot, dry summer.
For Harper County farmer Robert Sharp, there’s no such thing as too much residue.
Glenn Bauer, Regan, N.D., has had good luck using cover crops to convert Conservation Reserve Program acres to cropland. Yields have been good, and costs have been low, he says.
Cover crop research is gaining ground in the Northern Plains. North Dakota State University is conducting several studies.
Gabe Brown and son Paul have a breakeven cost on corn of $1.18 per bushel — thanks to their innovative use of no-till, cover crops and cattle.“Cattle so improve cropland that we want to get cattle on every acre we farm,” Gabe says.
Dennis Wacker of Plainview has been viewing organic farming from the sidelines. This past season, the 50-year farming veteran began his three-year transition toward organic certification, utilizing a strip-cropping system that conserves soil, gains yield and looks like a tapestry from the air.
‘‘Ray Boswell is always trying new things,” says Johnston County Extension agent Tim Britton. “He doesn’t try any and everything, but he is constantly on the lookout for the best new things to try. He keeps what works.”