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Selling cover crops

By Staff | Apr 11, 2012

Sarah Carlson, a field crops specialist with Practical Farmers of America, leads farmers and conservationists through a test plot of cover crops, which she sowed by hand last fall. In the foreground is a healthy stand of winter rye.

By LARRY KERSHNER

Farm News news editor

BOONE – Yet another field day on cover crops was held March 28 for 50 farmers and government employees looking to convince those still sitting on the fence to consider planting cover crops during the winter and spring months.

Proponents said they know cover crops have been a hard sell for many producers due to the extra cost of seeding, plus additional trips over their targeted fields to kill the cover ahead of planting.

And now the federal government has added to the challenge of selling cover crops by cutting its cost-share incentive to one-third the amount from just two years ago.

Jeremy Gustafson, a Boone-area farmer, shows a sample of winter rye he had aerially seeded last fall on corn ground. Looking on is Ralph Storm, of Storm Flying Service in Webster City, who applied the seed.

Bruce Voights, of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, based in the Clarion office, said the promotion line in 2012 is to tell producers “trying covers crops is free.”

Voights said that in 2010, the government cost-share was $106 per acre. in 2011 that was cut to $80 and in 2012, it will be at $40.

“We’re estimating that it will cost $38 (per acre) to apply cover crops,” Voights said, “so basically it’s free.”

That’s as far as the financial outline goes, he said. “But there are still some risks, yet we are still finding some interest (among farmers.)”

Jeremy Gustafson, who farms 1,400 acres around the Boone area, is using cover crops under the federal cost-share program and was impressed with the spring growth of cereal rye he planted after harvest in 2011. Some of his cover was applied by air and other portions were drilled.

A sample of peas as a cover crop planted last fall by Practical Farmers of America at an ISU research farm.

“It’s time-consuming,” Gustafson said. “It can be a hassle. There are pitfalls, but if you manage it right, it can work for you.”

Gustafson said he is likely to continue with using cover crops after the cost-share programs elapse because of the environmental benefits to be obtained over time.

“Soil conservation is the top thing,” he said. “When you are watching heavy rains and there’s nothing moving out there, it’s a good feeling.

“I’m not a big farmer, but I want to have good soil to pass on” to the next generation.

Ralph Storm, of Storm Flying Service, in Webster City, said he’s been aerial-applying winter cover crops for farmers for several years.

A sample of hairy vetch as a cover crop planted last fall by Practical Farmers of America at an ISU research farm.

With the government’s cost-share reduced to $40 per acre, “farmers are going to have to really believe in it.”

He said he sees cover crops, especially small grains, working well for cow/calf producers who can graze the cover before destroying it, getting green grass into cattle diets earlier.

He said an Ames-area producer green chops the cover before destroying the stands.

Improved soil

Tom Kaspar, an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, said the primary benefit for growing cover crops between harvest and planting is strictly for conservation.

He told the audience that fields sit vacant of vegetative cover for seven months of the year. Cover crops protect the soil from wind and rain erosion, and there is evidence that over the course of several years, soil tilth, nutrient levels and water-holding capabilities are improved.

The reason for this, he said, is that from roughly Oct. 1 to May 1, most fields are losing phosphorus, nitrogen, organic matter and topsoil. Winter crops prevent such losses.

In fact, Kaspar said, a nine-year test plot using cereal rye as a cover on a corn-soybean rotation, nitrogen loss was reduced by 53 percent. In the same nine-year plot, he said researchers found:

  • 15 percent more organic matter and earthworms.
  • 44 percent more particulate organic matter, which accumulates trace element metals.
  • 39 percent potential for mineralization of nitrogen, upward to eight pounds per acre. There is more present in the soil profile, Kaspar said, but the eight pounds is a direct benefit from the winter cover.

“These trends are pointing us in the right direction,” Kaspar said.

Kaspar recommends selecting a small grain as a winter cover, over tillage radish or legumes, because they tend to cost less, grow rapidly in cool weather and easier to control in the spring since they are not weeds.

Yield impacts

According to Kaspar, there is apparently no yield drag for soybeans or corn silage following cover crops. There is a four- to six-bushel yield drag in corn for grain, in the first few years, but that drag tends to disappear after successive years.

“Maybe the accumulated effects are making up the difference,” Kaspar said.

Contact Larry Kershner at (515) 573-2141, ext 453 or kersh@farm-news.com.

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