Farmers are making a transformative change to their landscape.
That’s the conclusion of a Practical Farmers of Iowa report on winter cereal rye cover crop.
It’s also the opinion of Sarah Carlson, the Midwest Cover Crops Research Coordinator for PFI.
“We don’t have hard data on cover crop growth,” she says, “but I am guessing we have grown from 50,000 acres five years ago to about 500,000 acres. And I think numbers are growing.”
Hank Wehrman is one of those farmers who began working with cover crops about five years ago.
“First of all, I’ve always been interested in conservation,” Wehrman says. He is a soil and water conservation commissioner in Benton County.
Wehrman has been using rye and radishes the past two years.
“We really have had good corn-bean rotation. The rye and radishes have been a benefit. The rye provides a green manure.
“Radishes are a tuber. They help soil tilth and water penetration. We run cows on corn residue and we found they like the radishes.”
Another soil commissioner, Jeremy Gustafson, who farms in Boone County, reports more people experimenting with how cover crops can work in their operation.
“Every operation is different. We use it in a normal corn-bean rotation,” Gustafson says.
His corn crop looks good, even after a recent hot spell. He has seen some dry fields where leaves were rolling, and he believes his increased soil tilth because of cover crops helps hold extra moisture.
“The biggest problem in Iowa for cover crops is the short window we have to use it. Some areas of the country have the advantage of longer growing season,” he says.
Gustafson would like to see more research examining soil biomass to see what nutrients it is capturing and how well it holds water.
“Everyone knows it (cover crops) is a benefit for soil erosion, but what does it do for soil health?” he asks.
Gustafson has some tips for those trying cover crops for the first time.
“When you plant, go small,” he recommends. “Pick a field you can play with.”
For instance, he found rye has a good root stem, which can become a mess in wet conditions.
He also recommends newcomers check with their crop insurance agents to make sure they are complying with all the rules.
Nathan Anderson, who farms in Cherokee County, finds cover crops increase their forage and grazing possibilities. They use turkey manure to help fertilize cropland.
“I started a few years back when my uncle used winter rye for silage. It also gave our calves a nice place to go in the spring,” he says.
“We’re interested in cover crops to take up and hold nutrients in place,” Anderson says. “We also use no-till, which adds one more way to keep soil on the land.”
He says he found an unanticipated benefit in increased soil tilth: “In one field that was not tilled, I could strip-till a gear faster and burn fewer gallons.”
Anderson says he also noticed a decline in waterhemp and lambsquarter after he began using winter rye.
Typically, he will knock down rye before he plants. Then he will no-till beans into the residue.
“Sometimes the rye is tall enough that you cannot see the planter toolbar. It seems that planting in that green residue, the ground will slice better than it does in dry conditions,” he said.
Carlson believes farmers are getting the message. She began organizing meetings in 2007, when she began work at PFI.
“At our first meetings, attendance was about 15 to 20 guys,” she said. “Sometimes only 10 would show up. And now it is not uncommon to have a crowd in the fifties and sometimes in hundreds.”
She’s optimistic cover crop use will grow.
“The cattle industry is really embracing cover crops,” she said.
As that happens, she believes Iowa acres under cover could jump to 3 million.
“If we want to meet the state mandate, we probably need 10 million acres with cover crops,” she says.
She believes that’s attainable. As farmers work to make a change to their landscape, she sees them transforming their culture.
“Farmers are figuring out how to make this change and how to make good observations and how to share it with their neighbors,” Carlson said.
PFI and Iowa State University poll farmers at field days, she explains. Those polls show that farmers are getting cover crop information from other farmers.
“What we are seeing is that neighbors are talking to one another and helping each other figure out what works and what doesn’t work.
“We need that,” she said.