Putting Cover Crops to Work on the Farm Takes Time, Patience

12:40PM Jun 24, 2014
covercropspanel WCCA

Three U.S. farmers share the highs, lows and memorable moments of implementing cover crop strategies on their farms.

When Mark Anson started using cover crops on his Indiana farm, he wasn’t sure they would work. There was one thing he was sure of, though—he no longer had any enthusiasm for conventional farming.

"I was ready to sell out in 2010; I was sick of it," admits Anson, who is based near Vincennes and farms more than 20,000 acres with three brothers and six nephews.

Consequently, Anson says he was wide open to the idea of using cover crops to reduce soil degradation, which he felt was happening at an alarming rate across their entire acreage.

"We went out that first year and broadcast wheat cleanings on 1,200 acres," he recalls. Anson says he convinced his family to try the process with the promise that it could eventually help reduce the total number of trips they had to make across each field.

In that first year, Anson says they saw a small but positive response from the corn planted where cover crops had been sown. That was enough of a success to encourage the Anson family to plant 2,200 acres of cover crops the following year, including some on extremely steep, highly-erodible ground. Today, the Ansons continue to increase the number of acres they plant cover crops on and are experimenting with various cover crop mixes.

"The craziest thing the neighbors probably think we’ve done is that we’ve just accepted it (cover crops) so quickly," Anson says.

Anson, along with two other U.S. farmers, Dan Forgey and Tim Recker, spoke about their use of cover crops before a packed house last night during the 6th World Congress on Conservation Agriculture in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The three farmers agreed to form the panel discussion to share the highs, lows, memorable moments and victories of implementing cover crop strategies on their farms. The panel discussion was moderated by Charlene Finck, vice president of editorial for Farm Journal Media.

Keeping an Open Mind

Unlike Anson, Tim Recker was happy with conventional farming practices and wasn’t particularly interested in trying cover crops. He was, however, interested in trying to prevent nutrient runoff on the 1,700-acre Iowa farm that he operates with his brother, Jim. That objective convinced the men to plant a mix of radishes and oats as a fall cover crop. They figured the radish and oats would scavenge any available nitrogen, and the oats would also provide some cover in the spring to help hold the soil in place, two benefits that would also support their water quality efforts. The cover crops would also winterkill and mostly decompose before spring planting.

Like Anson, the Recker brothers saw some positive results that first year, enough to convince them to continue using them.

"I’m doing cover crops because of the long-term benefits in soil health, raising my organic matter and reducing erosion," says Recker, based near Arlington. "Everything I want to see accomplished won’t happen overnight but I know the improvements in soil health will improve my corn and soybeans yields."

While Recker and Anson are fairly new to cover crop use, Dan Forgey saw value in putting them to work on Cronin Farms more than a decade ago. As the agronomy manager for the operation, based near Gettysburg, S.D., Forgey says the various mixes he employs break up soil compaction, build organic matter, suppress weeds, minimize disease development and improve soil water absorption.

"Cover crops build soil health and are a big part of what we do," he says.

While he’s a huge proponent of cover crops, Forgey cautions farmers who want to try them to be prepared to invest time and patience during their adoption and realize there are no shortcuts.

"This isn’t an overnight thing; it’s a six, seven, 10-year deal to improve your soil health with cover crops," he contends.

Along with that, Forgey says farmers must experiment to determine what cover crop or mix of crops works best on their land. There are no successful one-crop-fits-all scenarios.

"Some people think there’s only one mix available, when there’s actually a tremendous number of cover crop species to choose from," Forgey says. "You have to know what your goals are and then experiment with different cover crops and mixes to find what works."

One thing all three men emphasized is the need for planting good quality cover-crop seed. High-quality seed pays for itself repeatedly while cheap seed costs money as a result of poor performance, Anson emphasizes.

The three farmers also stressed the benefit of having mentors who helped them get started with cover crops and the value of on-going education about different mixes as well as various planting, management and termination practices.

Last year, the three farmers participated in the High-Yield Conservation (HYC) project. HYC is part of the Harvesting the Potential: Farming to Feed the World initiative aimed at increasing awareness of global hunger issues and increasing high-yielding conservation practices among U.S. farmers. Harvesting the Potential is supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.