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Farmers learn to spread message

The pilot brought the helicopter in low toward the lot. With a subtle twist of the controls, the thwack-thwack sound echoing off the Morton building took on a deeper pitch. The helicopter slowed to a crawl, and a dangling long-line and spreader bucket came into position.

Farmers learn to spread message


The pilot brought the helicopter in low toward the lot. With a subtle twist of the controls, the thwack-thwack sound echoing off the Morton building took on a deeper pitch. The helicopter slowed to a crawl, and a dangling long-line and spreader bucket came into position.

A crowd gathered a safe distance away, as farmer Mark Peterson and an assistant quickly filled the sling bucket with a 1,000-pound load of cereal rye. Peterson whirled his hand above his head to signal the pilot, and the reverberating echo changed pitch again and the bucket floated off the ground. The prop wash swirled dust around him, as he watched the copter carry the cover crop seed to his nearby cornfield.

At noon the farm dogs howled and he had a good feeling about his timing. That night a half-inch of rain fell. From experience, Peterson knew timely rain was key to success with cover crops.

It was three years ago Peterson first aerial-seeded cover crops on his farm near Stanton. Gully-washing rains had persuaded him to plant cover crops the first time, and since then he’s become an outspoken advocate. If cover crops are the topic, he’s likely to join in the conversation. Peterson has traveled throughout Iowa and the Midwest meeting with folks to talk about cover crops.

Key Points

Boot camp teaches cover crop farmers to share experiences, advice with others.

Science on how cover crops help to build soil organic matter is covered.

Farmers: “Don’t just adopt; adapt cover crops to work for your farm.”

Farmers share experiences

Peterson isn’t alone. As cover crops gain popularity in Iowa, a growing number of experienced farmers are stepping forward to share practical advice. Just a few weeks before seeding rye via helicopter this year, Peterson had been in Cover Crops Boot Camp, a workshop he helped organize along with Sarah Carlson, Midwest cover crop research coordinator with Practical Farmers of Iowa. The idea was to gather farmers and researchers to talk about the latest science and on-farm research on covers and to share experiences.

Twenty-five farmers attended the Boot Camp in Ames, hosted by PFI with funding from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

The farmers came from a range of production systems, including row crops, livestock, and fruits and vegetables. All shared a common excitement for cover crops and a desire to tell others about them. These farmers are frequently sought out to talk about cover crops. The workshop goal was to help everyone get better at giving sound advice.

Day one began with science on how cover crops help to build soil organic matter, which allows soils to better hold water and nutrients, and makes soils resistant to erosion. “We talk a lot about the benefits generally, but moving forward we need to better understand how it works, so we can do better at managing for specific objectives,” said Carlson as she opened the event and introduced Tom Kaspar of the USDA Ag Research Service. Kaspar, a leading cover crop scientist, led a discussion on environmental benefits and yield impacts of cover crops.

Take-home messages

“The take-home message is,” Tim Recker of Arlington summed up, “there is really no reason not to be using cover crops; from an environmental perspective there aren’t really negatives.” Cover crops fit well into Recker’s seed corn operation; he drills cereal rye into the stubble and uses a mix of rye and radish to break up compaction on headlands that see a lot of traffic.

Kaspar’s presentation transitioned from environmental benefits to discussion on cover crops’ influence on cash crop yield. Sometimes it’s positive and usually it’s neutral — “not significantly different” as scientists say — but most glaring are the few big hits. Negative yield impacts are seen in the research, and farmers shared anecdotes of near disaster.

Wade Dooley of Albion recounted his first experience with cereal rye in 1996: “We couldn’t get into the field until the rye was waist high. We didn’t get it killed, and then planted corn right into it. The result was a disaster. But we learned.” That was Dooley’s first year and a hard lesson. But he’s planted cover crops every year since, with the goals of holding the soil and providing extra forage for his livestock.

As farmers and scientists dissected research results and shared stories, another clear take-home message emerged: Yield hits seem to be largely avoidable with proper management. This comes with experience, preparation and a little luck from the weather.

The researchers, from ISU agronomy and horticulture, led a discussion on successful planting and termination, avoiding herbicide carryover injury, and using cover crops in vegetable production. Building on the science, the farmers discussed strategies for adapting management to fit into their different farming systems.

Another take-home message: “Don’t just adopt; adapt cover crops to work for your farm.” The exchange of knowledge and ideas continued on day two as farmers told their stories of successes and failures, and talked about how to get more farmers and landowners interested in cover crops.

Cover crops on your farm

“There comes a time when you realize cover crops become the primary focus. The cash crop is there to cash in on benefits of soil health and nutrients you’ve gained from cover crops,” explained Andrew Dunham, as he told the group of primarily row crop farmers how he uses dozens of cover crop species in his diverse fruit, vegetable and forage operation at Grinnell Heritage Farm near Grinnell.

But you have to know what you want from each cover crop, said Dunham. There are a plethora of potential benefits, but some species are better at certain tasks than others. A cereal grain is easy to establish and holds the soil. Legumes and their symbiotic bacteria will fix atmospheric nitrogen. The brassicas, like turnip or radish, will scavenge nutrients, a useful strategy where the cash crop is lost, as several Boot Camp participants experienced this year due to hail and flooding.

All participants agreed: A farmer has to decide why cover crops are good for each farm, and how they fit into the current management. Erosion reduction is the first thing on many minds. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy also has everyone thinking about water quality, which benefits from reducing erosion and holding nutrients. It’s all connected, and multiple benefits can be sought at once. But deciding the why is the first step.

Cover crops are gaining popularity with hundreds of first-time farmers, and thousands of new acres are added every year in Iowa. The potential for widespread benefits is tremendous when things go right. But if they don’t, there’s potential for widespread frustration, too. Farmers completing the boot camp are available to answer questions about cover crops, this fall and beyond. For more information, contact PFI at 515-232-5661. PFI also provides many cover crop resources on its website including reports from 30 years of on-farm research into cover crops.

Larsen is communications and policy associate with Practical Farmers of Iowa.


Getting started with cover crops

At PFI’s recent Cover Crop Boot Camp, the main focus was how to help first-time cover-croppers. “There’s a learning curve with cover crops; it’s an added layer of management. A few farmers have been doing this for 20 years, but we need strategies for beginners. We want them to be successful and to continue with cover crops year after year,” says Don Elsbernd, farming near Postville in northeast Iowa.

There were as many suggestions as there were farmers in the room. However, the basic measure of success was simple: get a good stand and get it killed so it isn’t a problem for the next crop.

Oats, which will die over winter, minimizing the spring workload, were deemed a great entry-level cover. Successful termination is often the trickiest step with cover crops, and winterkill varieties make that a simple part of the equation. Oats biomass withers, and there isn’t much left of the oats in the field by spring. Also, as prices climb for some seeds, oats remain one of the cheapest and readily available seed.

The most popular cover crop, cereal rye, is also easy to grow, although it requires more active management in spring. The seed will grow about anywhere. Plan to start scouting your fields in late March. Whether you’ll terminate with a chemical or roller-crimp to kill, be ready to take advantage of conditions when they are right.

Beginners are advised to try rye ahead of soybeans and not corn. Soybeans are forgiving, and farmers are seeing good results when planting directly into rye cover.

Conversely, corn and rye may compete for nutrients and moisture. When done right it works well, but it requires a keen understanding of the balance between carbon and nitrogen. Late-spring nitrogen tests and sidedressing nitrogen may be needed. — Drake Larsen


COVERS WORK: “We talk a lot about the benefits of cover crops generally, but moving forward we need to better understand how they work, so we can do better at managing for specific objectives,” says PFI’s Sarah Carlson.

This article published in the September, 2014 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.

Cover Crops

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