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Winning with cover crops

By Staff | Apr 22, 2016

To the editor,

Bob Streit, in the April 15 issue of Farm News, was writing about soil health and he threw out the statement “cover crops are good” followed by the question “But then what is the common means of terminating them? You can’t have it both ways.”

The answer is simple – Round-up! But, I think his real question is, “are cover crops the answer?”

Although I wouldn’t presume to speak for Bob, I know that question is paramount to all farmers including Jerry Crew, of Webb.

Generically speaking, Bob has violated a cardinal rule of journalism which is a question asked should be a question answered.

Well, despite the fact I earned my one and only “D” in ag journalism 101 at Iowa State College, if it isn’t a cardinal rule, it should be.

The decision to plant or not plant cover crops cannot be made merely as just another production decision.

Most farmers look at the decision based on one crop season, and since there is no data that cover crops return the cost of planting, they will never plant them unless someone else pays the cost of planting.

Unfortunately, there is one other scenario when CC will be planted by farmers – the EPA tells us to. Can’t happen? Ask the farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Soil health is determined by the activity of the living organisms in the soil ranging from the large earthworm (the old-fashioned night crawler) to the smallest microbe.

The more the activity, the healthier the soil.

The obvious question is what can I do to increase the activity? The first step is to stop killing them with tillage.

The second step is to provide additional food in the form of manure or a living plant root. Most farmers today don’t have access to livestock manure (the old days of yore – Ma and Pa Kettle down on the farm – are gone), but we can plant cover crops extending the time growing roots are available by, depending on location, three to four months.

The only way we can increase soil health is eliminate tillage and plant cover crops. What?

Everyone knows you must go to a longer rotation to maximize soil activity. That’s an old wives tale perpetrated by the “organic” lobby and the PC media.

A corn/soybean rotation (grass-legume) is great, but a three-year rotation of no-till planting of corn with cover crops, followed by corn with cover crops, followed by soybeans with cover crops would increase crop residue giving more food for the soil organisms.

But to go three or four years of corn? More research is needed.

Cover crops long-term are winners. Are there enough farmers willing to continue them short-term to make a difference?

Lets hope we can make that decision voluntarily.

-Jerry Crew


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