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Get the Most Out of Your Cover Crop Investment

July 24, 2014
By: Rhonda Brooks, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
Craig Weisman
Craig Weisman says cover crops have done an excellent job of minimizing soil erosion on his Indiana farm.  

Concrete goals can help you capture a return on investment with cover crops.

Show me the money: that’s the comment Ken Ferrie says his farmer customers always make when he brings up the topic of cover crops with them. And why not? Every practice on the farm has to provide a payoff in some fashion for it to be worth implementing.

That’s no less true for the use of cover crops, which have grabbed headlines and farmers’ attention across the country the past few years.

Historically, farmers planted cover crops for erosion prevention and control or to provide additional pasture for grazing livestock. Today, there is increased interest in the use of cover crops due to additional agronomic and environmental benefits they offer. But some farmers, in their haste to capture the perceived benefits of cover crops, have tried them and discarded them because they didn’t deliver a benefit the first time out; or, worse yet, they created agronomic problems in the field.

"Not knowing what you’re doing with them can be hazardous," Ferrie acknowledges.

He says farmers need to develop a comprehensive approach to using cover crops. He adds that the process should start with identifying and establishing specific, measurable goals.

Some potential objectives to consider using cover crops for:

• A nitrogen source
• Winter grazing and spring forage
• Erosion control, stewardship
• Nutrient recycling, cleaner water
• Weed management
• Soil health
• Soil building
• Improved soil tilth
• Wildlife habitat

"Erosion management, slowing it down and stopping it have been the main benefits for us," says Craig Weisman, who farms 950 acres of corn and soybeans with his dad, Denny, near Otwell, Ind.

"We have some bottom ground the river gets out on every year and hill ground where water runs to certain washes, and cover crops help hold the soil in place," Weisman adds.

Weisman was one of nearly 200 farmers attending sessions on cover crops this week during the seventh-annual Corn College, hosted by Farm Journal Media.

Some farmers are seeing a financial payoff from using cover crops, thanks to state-specific programs. For 2014, Maryland farmers are able to take advantage of government cost-sharing projects. The state is investing $20 million in cover crops, Ferry notes. Base payouts range between $45 and $55 per acre.

"There’s up to another $45 in for additional practices," he says. "It’s on a first come, first served basis."

Not every state has those kind of financial opportunities, however, and the cost for purchasing cover crop seed, planting it and terminating it ranges widely, as little as $20 an acre and up to $105 an acre, Ferrie says.

Weisman notes that cover crops are a significant investment and need to be researched before farmers take a plunge with them.

"I wouldn’t just throw a cover crop out in the field," Weisman says. "I’d ask people how it will work for you, when to kill it, if you need to kill it, and get a good background on anything you want to put in the field. Otherwise, you could have a big flop. It’s very important to ask people a lot of questions and plan out what you’re going to do before you do it."

Thank you to the 2014 Corn College sponsors:

AgriGold, BASF, Chevrolet, Cover Crop Solutions, FMC, Great Plains Mfg., Precision Planting, SFP, Top Third, Yetter Mfg. 

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