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Cover crops show caring for land

By Staff | Nov 8, 2014

-Farm News photos by Karen Schwaller JEAN EELLS, of the E Resources Group, places soil samples into jars of water in order to test their abilities to drain water. She said testing soil drainage is important to successful crop yields.



SPIRIT LAKE – Soil health was the main focus for a gathering of Northwest Iowa women at the Women Caring for the Land seminar held at the Dickinson County Nature Center.

Nearly half of Iowa farm land is owned, or co-owned by women, according to the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.

About a dozen women in attendance learned to assess and improve soil health through cover crops, no-till and strip-till practices.

LAKE PARK FARMER Jared Herbert shows women in attendance the cover crops he has planted successfully over the years. He said he has more soil moisture to plant in each spring, because of cover crops.

Carol Schutte, WFAN program assistant from Clear Lake, said research is finding soil health to be a serious concern, and that the structure and biology of the soil are important.

“There is a whole community that lives in the soil underground,” she said. “It’s important to improve that before you improve the above-ground soil.”

Schutte said bacteria get a “bad rap,” but most soil bacteria are crucial to good soil health.

Bacteria, she said, helps build organic matter ,and Schutte said, not all nematodes are bad.

“As microorganisms grow and divide, they make the soil richer, with better nutrients for our crops,” she said. “Most fungi are good.

“We know now that every crop or plant has its own kind of fungus that lives closely associated with the root. They’re good at bringing nutrients to that plant. Phosphorus is well-traveled among the fungus monorail.”

Dr. Jean Eells, of the E Resources Group, in Webster City, said soil has changed dramatically over the years, and that testing it for density and drainage are important. She said gullies in fields – even small ones – are red flags that something is wrong.

“They tell us soil is moving. Once the soil is moved, it’s gone,” she said.

She said in testing she’s done, soil samples containing roots retain the most water. She called the roots the “glue that holds soil together.”

Samples with no roots fall apart from water pressure – meaning that water goes through it without retention.

“We don’t need more tile drainage – we need better soil health,” said Eells. “and too much tillage plugs up the pores in the soil and doesn’t allow for good drainage overall.”

Sarah Carlson, Midwest Cover Crops research coordinator from Ames, said researchers estimate Britain has only 100 harvest seasons left.

“That’s because of the changing soil health,” she said, accentuating the importance of paying attention to it. “Genetics (combined with) environment equals production/yield.

“We can’t count on good yields from genetics only – we have to have the whole picture.”

Carlson said soil sampling must include samples from well within the field. She said soil moves from the middle of the field to the edges in rain events.

Samplings done only from field edges can often misrepresent the true picture of a field’s soil health.

Carlson said cover crops play an important role in maintaining good soil biology, since they hold soil in place it allows underground microorganisms to feed the soil.

She said there are three main categories of cover crops:

  • Winter cereal rye is hardy and sucks up nitrogen that leach through the field.

She said winter cereal rye scavenges nutrients, reduces soil erosion and suppresses weeds.

  • Rapeseed, she said, can help producers not have to use nematicides in the long run since it reduces soil erosion, suppresses soil-borne pests and cycles nutrients.

“When you use nematicides, you also kill the ones that help the crops,” she said.

  • The hairy vetch category offers biological nitrogen, weed suppression and topsoil health.

Costs associated with cover crops can be expensive at first, she said, but the use of cover crops is meant to benefit over time, so using them requires commitment to long-term soil health improvement.

Aerial-seeding 60 pounds of cereal rye costs between $32 and $40 per acre. Legumes and mixes will cost between $40 and $50 per acre.

Research shows that, over time, less nitrogen needs to be applied, offsetting costs of cover crop planting.

Carlson said drilling cover crops after harvest is less expensive, but labor can be an issue. She said mixing cover crop seeds with fertilizer application in the fall is the cheapest route, but is the least convenient.

Cover crops offer cattle grazing options, she said.

Carlson said because cover crops retain soil moisture, there is less corn firing in dry seasons.

Jared Herbert, of Lake Park, said he has not tilled his farm land since 1991, and uses a rye, hairy vetch and rapeseed mix. He seeds with an airplane.

“It’s been a good thing,” he said, adding that he has received cost-share funding from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program through the NRCS to get his cover crops going. “It’s been a good thing because I’m always planting in moisture.”

John Boettcher, of Spirit Lake, is in his second year of using cover crops. This year he used a combination of winter rye, winter barley and hairy vetch over 200 acres.

“It’s expensive to start out,” he said. “but I was convinced to use it for forage for our cow-calf operation and to improve soil health.

“I’ve seen some of the highest yields on our slope land we’ve ever seen.”

Boettcher also practices strip-till, saying he believes in it because he can place the fertilizer on the corn crop where it needs to be, saving him money and using fertilizer wisely.

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