Gather a group of farmers under one roof and throw in a cover crop bone. The divergence of opinion is marked, the passion of supporters is palpable and the discontent of skeptics is striking. Cover crop supporters are confronted with issues related to costs versus measurable returns, while skeptics are faced with pointed questions over soil health benefits and long-term gains. These seven farmers, some on opposite sides of an invisible agriculture fault line, share their experiences with cover crops. To read their full accounts, visit bit.ly/cover-crop-lessons.
Careful Technique is Crucial
After using the wrong cover crop mix and planting method for his northwest Iowa ground, Recker drilled cereal rye in 2014 and hasn’t looked back. Cereal rye costs $9 to $13 per bushel, but he meters seed and plants a half-bushel at ½" depth, slashing costs in half. In the spring, he adds glyphosate to scheduled spray passes, then hammers armyworms with pyrethroids. In all, covers cost him less than $20 per acre. Since 2014, his soybean yields have jumped 5 bu. to 7 bu. per acre every year.
“I see guys getting pushed into covers with bad advice and people passing out money and saying, ‘Go plant covers.’ No, it takes a serious management technique,” Recker says.
Not the Answer for Every Farm
Renner has implemented cover crops—but struggles to see genuine return on investment based on the realities of farming. “It’s impossible for me to stay sustainable if I can’t make a profit,” says the Hancock County, Iowa, grower. “Every dollar I spend has heavy consequences, and if I don’t make a profit, I won’t survive.”
He partially attributes the cover crop movement to water quality concerns. “It’s imperative the public knows we care deeply about water quality, but the answer doesn’t start and end with covers,” Renner says. “Buffers and better focused CRP can play a role. Covers are a piece of the puzzle but only with a realization they’re not the only answer on every farm.”
Beneficial Weed Control
In 2012, Sylling borrowed a drill, patched erosion spots (15 acres) with 2 bu. per acre of cereal rye and the living roots kept soil in place far better than traditional residue cover. The next year, the southeast Minnesota farmer aerial seeded 300 acres of cereal rye, resulting in a total flop. Today, he drills cover crops on almost 100% of his acreage. His Roundup Ready beans no longer need a residual herbicide, he adds.
“Ragweed and marestail have been virtually eliminated. In fact, we’re considering no post-application sprays in corn or soybeans because weed pressure is so low,” he says.
Sylling’s corn yields have increased 37 bu. per acre from 2012 to 2017.
Healthy Skepticism Prevails
On his commute, Kruse passes 40 miles of farmland, and on a winter day, he sees the uniformity of bare dirt broken by a solitary cover crop field.
Kruse, a Clay County Iowa corn and soybean farmer and president of CommStock Investments, acknowledges soil health benefits and yield bumps but contends the positives are burdened by hanging questions. “Right now, with so many unknowns, covers aren’t practical on my ground,” he says. “I would have to make serious management changes to my current agronomic practices to adapt to cover crops. I’m trying to evaluate if the benefit is worth it. I’m open to learn, but I’m a skeptic.”
Plan Before You Plant
As interim director of the Soil Health Partnership and vice president of production and sustainability at the National Corn Growers Association, Goeser urges growers to test cover crop success on an entire agronomic system, year over year. “You’ve got to have soil sample data as a baseline picture, and aerial imagery and yield monitor data all play a role to point toward site-specific economic evaluations,” he says. “See where you truly stand before cover crops, in order to truly measure after cover crops.
“I have never been on a farm when we haven’t found opportunity during an economic assessment,” Goeser adds.
Patience Precedes Success
About an hour southeast of Des Moines, Jackson grows corn and soybeans near Oskaloosa. Along with his father, Mark, he’s been growing covers for four years, initially to combat erosion. In 2014, Jackson aerial seeded 100 acres of cereal rye with varied results. He now drills cereal rye directly behind the combine.
“The claims of the cover skeptics are partially valid, but that’s where the beauty of cereal rye comes in. It’s an amazing plant and works anywhere,” he says.
Jackson’s corn yield climbed 10 bu. per acre in the third year of cover crop use. “Some farmers are understandably scared to not get an instant return, but it’s coming and doesn’t take long,” he adds.
Seek Additional Benefits
Palmer, the president-elect of the National Association of Conservation Districts, grows corn, hay and soybeans in Truro, 40 miles south of Des Moines. He uses cereal rye, oats, triticale and wheat as cover crops and cuts costs by raising his own cover seed. Beyond erosion control and nutrient retention, he uses covers as extra cattle feed in fall and spring.
Palmer also sees the international demand for carbon storage as a future cover crop incentive. “For conservation practices like covers, I believe there will be a payment down the road, and it could be a direct payment to producers who are doing these things,” he says.