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Cover crops gaining acceptance

By Staff | Dec 21, 2013

DISCUSSING COVER CROPS during a break at the Dec. 10 cover crops seminar in Le Mars are, from left, producer panelists Brad Feuerhelm, of Le Mars; Mark Philips, Akron; Joel De Jong, an ISU Extension agronomist, based in Le Mars; and James Lahn, NRCS district conservationist, based in Moville.

MOVILLE – Liz Juchems, events coordinator for Iowa Learning Farms, told an audience of 80 on Dec. 10 that ILF’s evaluations are showing 40 percent seminar attendees are increasing their use of cover crops.

Juchems was speaking at a cover crops workshop in Moville, sponsored by ILF.

Juchems said these findings are indicative of the growing producer interest in planting cover crops, as well as the value of ILF’s collaboration with Iowa Practical Farmers, related agricultural agencies and producers.

“They see the programs making a difference in soil and water quality and conservation on their farms.” Juchems said, comparing the response to that of the 14-year old IFL organization’s efforts on behalf of increasing no-till and strip-till and residue management in Iowa.

Area producers Mark Philips, of Akron, and Brad Feuerhelm, of Le Mars, were among a panel of speakers giving testimony to the value of their cover crop programs.

Philips, who manages a 2,000-head beef cattle finishing operation, said he’s pleased with how his major cover crops – cereal rye and rye grass – have done in the three years he’s used them.

He said he’s also used tillage radish and field peas as field covers.

“I got into cover crops looking for erosion control, improved soil moisture and nutrient improvement,” Philips said.

He burns the growth down in spring. The soils’ improved water-holding characteristics, he said, were readily apparently during the 2012 drought.

He advises those considering cover crops to “do it” using the crops initially in an area, or part of an area, where they see soil erosion or a need for soil organic matter and to realize it’s all right to start off slowly in the beginning and then move into other fields as seen needed.

Brad Feuerhelm, owner of the 3,000-head Plymouth Dairy, near Le Mars, is in his 10th year cover cropping.

He agreed with Philips on the benefits to his fields where cover crops are planted – improved soil health and curbing erosion on his tillable near the dairy.

“My goal planting (cover) crops in the fall is to build the soil’s organic matter,” Feuerhelm said, and soil tilth, to foster a better environment for soil microbes.

“I’m also looking for water-holding capacity and erosion control, as well as saving nutrients that may be lost deep in the soil where they may not be available to crops.

“Once our corn silage is chopped in the fall there’s little residue left, and that’s when (cover) crops are planted.

“We don’t have a lot of terraces to hold water and had seen signs of erosion after we’d chopped the corn. The crops have definitely decreased field erosion.”

He added that his crops are either killed in the spring with Round-Up or chopped into silage to be used for filler feed for his dairy heifers when killed fields are planted with no-till corn.

James Lahn, Natural Resources Conservation Service soil conservationist, based in Le Mars, said approximately 30 area producers have taken advantage of the agency’s 2013 cover crop incentive payment program and follow research at district demonstration plots.

“Working with the cover crops has definitely been a learning process for all of us,” Lahn said, “including a broad range of producers and variable sizes and types of operations.

“After the Memorial Day weekend, however, I’m sincerely convinced of the benefits of cover crops in reducing soil erosion plus improving water quality and sequestering nitrates. We’ve also seen the value or rye as a cover crop providing weed suppression. The crops offer a number of benefits for producers,” Lahn said.

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