Digging In

Podcast: Jim Isermann – Cover Crop Report Yields Great Insight for SHP

By SHP Staff on Tuesday, 14 July, 2020

How are cover crops being grown? How are plantings and crops changing over time? What costs are associated for farmers and are the costs increasing or decreasing per acre over time? These are the sorts of data points that Jim Isermann, Soil Health Partnership Field Manager for Northern Illinois and Wisconsin, is attempting to uncover with the first-ever 2019 SHP Cover Crop Planting Report.

Isermann has been experimenting with cover crops since the early 2000s when he began implementing cover crop programs on his farm to extend the haying and grazing season for his livestock. He has learned a lot since then and he enjoys helping other farmers shorten their learning curves.

In this podcast, Isermann explains that SHP has collected a lot of information over time including a lot of geospatial yield data and soil test data. But collecting information on practices that farmers are adopting to impact the collected results is also important.

“Obviously that’s a good step to take, to just collect what is going on with the cover crops, how they’re [farmers] applying it. But it’s really trying to get at the success of the cover crop or the soil health practice because right now we are kind of in an area where we talk a lot about cover crops, but we’re kind of lacking overall in the industry and how do we assess the successfulness of that cover crop. When does it work? How does it work? And then just the basic information of how much money are farmers spending on this. What’s the cost to do it? How are they getting the job done? We’re trying to capture all that in this type of a survey,” Isermann said.

The SHP Cover Crop Planting Report consists of answers from 80 farmers that participated in SHP programs in 2019. Those 80 farmers live in eleven different states and provided information about the cover crops that they seeded last year.

The survey results uncovered some interesting trends. Isermann was happy to see that although 2019 sent farmers waves of difficult weather, many farmers were committed to getting their cover crops planted, either by planting early and interseeding or by planting late, after the typical window.

Isermann also discusses the fact that labor is a constraint for farmers because cover crops are not cash crops and farmers are obviously focused on getting the cash crop harvested first. Survey results indicated that many farmers offset that concern by planting early or by simply contracting the cover crop work out.

There is more the 2019 SHP Cover Crop Planting Report can teach us! Learn by listening to the full podcast below.



Host: John Mesko

Guest: Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager for Northern Illinois and Wisconsin


John Mesko (00:26):

Hi, I’m John Mesko, and welcome to another edition of the People of Soil Health. Today, we’ll be discussing the key findings from the first-ever Soil Health Partnership cover crops survey. The survey was conducted with SHP farmer partners regarding their cover crop use on trial sites in 2019. Cover crops are a hot topic these days so there is much interest in these results. And joining me to share those results and provide some insights is Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager for Northern Illinois and Wisconsin, and Jim is also known for his extensive cover crop knowledge. And so, Jim, welcome to the podcast. Before we talk about the survey, I’m curious. What got you interested in cover crops and how did you become so knowledgeable about them?

Jim Isermann (01:19):

Well, thanks, John, and thanks for having me on today. My experience with cover crops goes back quite a while. It kind of began actually through livestock. We started a cow-calf operation back in the early 2000s when I returned to the family farm. We were looking to diversify both economically, but also to bring some more diverse rotations onto our farm. Prior to that, we were corn and soybeans and we were looking to, at the time, really just bring pastures and alfalfa back into the rotation, but very early on, we started attending meetings and people talked a lot about extending the grazing season and utilizing annuals for forages, and we started down a path incorporating cereal rye for spring grazing, oats, radishes, turnips for fall grazing, integrated wheat into the rotation and kind of began down the path of using cover crops back then.

Jim Isermann (02:15):

So we’ve used them on our farm for one way or another, both for livestock grazing and on our cash crop systems as well for over 15 years now. I was fortunate enough to be able to sell cover crop and forage seeds for a while so that gave me a lot of knowledge, a lot of experience with different growers, and the different things that they were doing. I was able to work as a cover crop specialist. And then I started with the Soil Health Partnership five years ago, back in 2015. And so for the last five years, been able to work with the SHP growers, mostly in Illinois, but more recently in Wisconsin as well, just working with them to see the different ways they’re using cover crops on their farms.

John Mesko (02:53):

Well, I know we certainly benefit greatly from your experience with that as we talk about the work that our other field managers do across the country and as we think about SHP as an organization, our mission is to expand the wide-scale adoption of soil health building practices and, of course, cover crops is one of those things. And so when we embarked on this survey last year, tell the listeners of the podcast what the overall objective of the survey was and what we hope to accomplish by having the information.

Jim Isermann (03:29):

Sure. So within Soil Health Partnership, we collect quite a bit of information. Historically, we’ve done a lot with some geospatial yield data, as well as some soil tests. So collecting the information on the practices that the farmers are actually adopting that effected those results is very important. So obviously that’s a good step to take, to just collect what is going on with the cover crops, how they’re applying it. But it’s really trying to get at the success of the cover crop or the soil health practice because right now we are kind of in an area where we talk a lot about cover crops, but we’re kind of lacking overall in the industry and how do we assess the successfulness of that cover crop. When does it work? How does it work? Under what circumstances are the right moves? And we’re kind of lacking a lot of information in terms of what is the practical management considerations for growers to have.

Jim Isermann (04:24):

So this survey is kind of a beginning step of that. Some collecting that data to start to pair it with the other sets of data that we collect and see how it affects the other information, but it’s also a kind of a good baseline level for us to see what the growers are doing now and compare what’s going to change five years from now because that is one thing that I’ve definitely seen over the years with using cover crops, that farmers, whether it’s on their own personal journey of starting off with something simple and moving to something more advanced, or even just the way that we’re approaching cover crops compared to 15 years ago, there’s a lot of changes. So it’s good to record that information. And then just the basic information of how much money are farmers spending on this. What’s the cost to do it? How are they getting the job done? We’re trying to capture all that in this type of a survey.

John Mesko (05:16):

Well, very good. And I know that the information in the survey and if we’re able to conduct it in future years will certainly help SHP achieve our goal of seeing more and more adoption of these practices. Who were the participants in the survey? How did we reach out to folks?

Jim Isermann (05:34):

We reached out to our SHP growers who were in the program last year. So we had about 80 farmers respond to the survey. That was across 11 states. So we got a pretty far-reaching response from our growers. This does primarily apply to the cover crops that they seeded last year. So this is what they put in, generally in the fall of 2019, but we do have some farmers putting cover crops in in the summer as well. So it’s capturing that data across our Soil Health Partnership farmer network.

John Mesko (06:05):

I want to get into some of the responses, Jim, and hear what we learned, but I’m curious from your perspective, was there anything that jumped out at you as really surprising? Things you didn’t expect to find.

Jim Isermann (06:17):

Well, I think somewhat of a surprise was the varied amount of time that people took to get their cover crops in. So we found that more than half the farmers planted between the middle of September and the beginning of November, which is kind of the prime time for getting cover crops in, but almost 40% of the growers actually planted either earlier than that or later than that. So that was kind of a little bit of a surprise for what we saw for the data. Certainly, 2019 had its own particular set of challenges and that may have affected a little bit of a different timing that went on.

John Mesko (06:51):

Well, for sure, 2019 threw us a lot of curveballs, weather-wise. I find it interesting that in the cases where farmers were going later than November, mid-November, let’s say, given all that happened last year, that they went ahead and did it. They went ahead and put the cover crop in, regardless.

Jim Isermann (07:12):

Farmers can respond and it’s important to see that they are getting that job done, but it is also taking a look at one of the major challenges of cover crops, which is the timing and making sure that the farmer has the time to get it done. Maybe we’ll talk a little more on some other aspects of the survey that came back, but we definitely saw the farmers taking those steps, whether it’s through species selection or application method in order to get the job done. But we did also see that growers were also putting some of those cover crops in ahead of that date. So we’re seeing an uptick in growers, particularly in northern latitudes, taking advantage of early season interseeding into corn and even late-season overseeding applications in order to try to get that cover crop off to a good start. So it gives us a lot of data, but it also gives us a lot more questions of exactly what are farmers doing in order to get this done.

John Mesko (08:09):

As we have tried to help folks implement some of these practices, implement the use of cover crops, one of the issues that farmers need to deal with sometimes is a need for equipment or a need for labor that needs to be available at a certain time to do this. What kinds of findings did we have regarding, in addition to timing, but method of application, or how farmers were able to get this in, maybe in the cases where they lacked the labor or equipment to do it?

Jim Isermann (08:40):

So labor is a big restraint for growers. At the end of the day, a cover crop is something that the farmer is not harvesting. They’re planting something else out there, primarily, it’s going to be corn, soybeans, or wheat within our program, but that tends to be the priority for growers oftentimes is to get that cash crop off because that’s where their income is derived from. So we do see labor constraints, particularly at harvest time, and so that can make it difficult to get the crop in. So there’s a couple of steps that growers can make in order to help out with that. One of those is that’s interseeding or overseeding, as I kind of briefly mentioned there because that gives them the opportunity to get that cover crop in before harvest. So just taking that step to, either with an aerial application or a high-clearance seeder, getting it in before harvest, that kind of gets that labor need out of the way ahead of time, and oftentimes maybe a contract or someone else who is doing that.

Jim Isermann (09:38):

And then that’s kind of the second thing that we really saw a lot of. We saw 31% of those who planted a cover crop actually contracted it out to someone else, which I think is, from a management standpoint is a pretty good thing because that may be, in a lot of instances, what’s necessary for farmers to get this cover crop on, to get someone else who’s dedicated to getting that done. So we did see quite a few growers choose those two options, both with looking at the contracting, and then we saw 25% of the farmers that actually looked to that interseeding or overseeding into the standing crop before harvest to help kind of address those labor concerns.

John Mesko (10:15):

When you were talking about your cover crop experience on your own farm, you mentioned a number of crops that you used for grazing cover crops that you use for grazing in your grazing beef operation. And I know that some of those are probably crops that aren’t first to mind when people start thinking about cover crops. What kinds of species of cover crops are being used, as represented by the survey?

Jim Isermann (10:41):

Well, we saw a number of different responses so we’re certainly seeing that growers are using all kinds of different cover crops, things that’ll fit into whatever their need is, whatever their goal for the cover crop is or maybe the time of year they’re able to get this in. We did see that the most widely planted cover crop, as was expected, was cereal rye. And we saw of the growers were planting a single species 80% of them were using cereal rye, which wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise. But we also found that cereal rye was in almost 50% of the mixes that growers were using. So with the constraints that we have, and we talked about the timing last year, particularly, it was a late season and a lot of cover crops going in after a fairly late harvest, we did see a pretty good reliance on cereal rye.

John Mesko (11:30):

So tell me about what we learned about cover crop mixes. I know, as I said, your experience is heavily into a number of different mixes that you used but your goal was for grazing cover crops. When are we seeing, and I know this wasn’t necessarily a focus of the survey, but I’m curious from your experience, when do we see farmers using multi-species cover crop mixes, especially beyond two species in the mix? What are the things that lead to that and why are farmers using a mix rather than just saying, “Let’s put out some cereal rye?”

Jim Isermann (12:07):

Well, we did see a pretty strong presence of mixes in our survey results. So we did see 53% of the growers were planting a mix with at least two or more species. And so I think that is just representative of the growers realizing they want more biodiversity out there. They want to see more things happening out there. They want to hedge their bets. So we are seeing, I think that would be, if we had more historical data, we would probably see that as being different from four or five years ago. I know a lot of farmers are really, really looking to get some other species out there for various reasons, but we are seeing also too that those mixes, generally speaking, are going to be included when we can get that cover crop out a little earlier. So, as we mentioned a few minutes ago, cereal rye is that one that we can plant later and still get good results out of.

Jim Isermann (12:56):

But growers are also recognizing that as if they can push that seeding window up and get that cover crop out there a little bit earlier in the year, that’s when they can have those opportunities to get the cover crop mixes out there, and to go to two or three species is becoming more common. And some of the other species that we saw, as a result of the survey, we see growers using oats, and rapeseed, radishes, clovers, but they’re primarily cover crops that are still a cool-season cover crops that are going in in the fall, either right before cash crop harvest or right after. And we’re seeing those growers kind of look to those two to three to maybe four-way mixes. Where we see the really more complex mixes come in, we may hear people talking about growers doing 6 to 12-way mixes, those become more common when we can get a cover crop in in the late summer or last year, even, maybe in privet plant acres.

Jim Isermann (13:50):

So then we can start to look at more warm-season cover crops, species that can really express themselves throughout the year, and they need that warmth and they aren’t very frost tolerant. So, we see that move to more complex mixes the more growing season we have, the more time we have for those cover crops really express themselves before we get that frost. But we are still seeing those growers start to include those more simple mixes which are good too, those two to three species, four species in the after cash crop harvest with those cool-season cover crops.

John Mesko (14:23):

Jim, as a couple of good agronomists here, I enjoy having a conversation with you about the agronomy regarding putting cover crops in, planning dates, and how we’re going to determine seeding species, different species, and so forth and their impacts. But I’m curious. One of the questions we always get from farmers and others are how does all of the costs of this weigh up? What are we benefiting in terms of the bottom line and what does it cost to use cover crops? I know that was a big part of the survey. And what did we learn about how much cover crops are costing farmers?

Jim Isermann (15:02):

Yeah, as we gain the knowledge kind of on the benefits side of cover crops and soil health, obviously, what expenses we’re putting in to get there are going to be a big component of that. So we did collect quite a bit of this information from growers, which maybe is somewhat unique to this survey, certainly, compared to things that we’ve done in the past. So we did find that the median cost of the cover crop seed was about $15 an acre and that the cost to apply it was generally around $12 an acre, but that varied a lot for a various reasons, whether or not they had different species, or what the mix was that they were looking at, or what their method of application was. So, we were able to ask them some questions. I drilled down a little bit deeper in order to kind of tease out some of that information.

Jim Isermann (15:46):

And we did find that growers looking at single species were averaging around $14 an acre. And as we started to create more complex mixes, the cost did go up. So growers who were looking at a two to three-way mix were seeing costs around $16.60. And then as that mix increased to more than three species, we saw up to $22.50 was the average for three or more species. So the growers were starting to spend more money when they got into doing more complex mixes but I think that was also a result of they were seeing the advantage of those complex mixes. So they were probably going in earlier in the year. They probably produced a better opportunity to really see some benefit out of those cover crops and so they were willing to spend some more money.

Jim Isermann (16:31):

In terms of the application costs, that was another one that was really kind of interesting to see the numbers come out of. A lot of growers were still looking at using a drill and those costs ran around $14,50 an acre. We also saw growers looking at just broadcasting, which kind of lowered the cost. The farmers were recording an average cost of about $10 an acre to broadcast the cover crop seed. And then aerial application was kind of right in the mix there, was running just under $14 for the growers who were looking to use an airplane to get their cover crop out.

John Mesko (17:05):

This aerial seeding is interesting to me, Jim. It seems like, especially in the northern part of the corn belt where those fall harvests can run very late at times, and the ideas that you threw out earlier about how opening that window, that seeding window to get the cover crop out early, aerial seeding’s an option. Is there sufficient network of aerial seeders that are available and willing to do this, or is that a potentially limiting factor if this practice continues to increase?

Jim Isermann (17:37):

Aerial application has been around for a number of years. So there is a pretty good network of experienced pilots who are able to apply cover crops pretty effectively. There is also some other options that have come up over the years. We start to see more high-clearance seeders, so machines that are able to go in on the ground similar to our high-clearance sprayers, are usually a sprayer modified in some way in order to be able to get that seed on the ground, most commonly used in corn crops, but sometimes in soybeans as well. So that’s been another option and helped growers have another option to get their cover crops on. So that’s become pretty popular. Another thing that we’re seeing more recently, and anyone who accesses the full report, I believe we use some language that kind of defines between interseeded and overseeded.

Jim Isermann (18:26):

And that’s because we’re trying to capture what is still somewhat a fairly new method of cover crop seeding, which is going in very early into the corn crop, more towards like the V5 stage of corn. So early spring, late summer where farmers are going in and applying the cover crop at that time, particularly in more northern latitudes. So that’s another thing that’s coming around in order to deal with this limited timeframe that a lot of growers have to get this cover crop off and running. So farmers are certainly looking at different ways to get the cover crop established. A lot of that is still needs a lot of research behind it. It’s something that, particularly that early season interseeding is becoming more successful, but it’s definitely something that is experimental to an extent right now, but we are seeing more success with that. And when we’re trying to capture it within the information we’re collecting at Soil Partnership as well, to see how well that works for growers.

John Mesko (19:21):

I know that we’ve talked about this before, and it certainly is born out in the survey and the results, and that is that the farmers that we work with largely in Soil Health Partnership and farmers, in general, are very innovative and creative. The solutions for how we make good use of cover crops, expanding the planning window, whatever the barriers are, farmers will, I think, continue to evolve their understanding and create new solutions just like what you’re talking about, the interseeding, looking for ways to maybe modify equipment or adapt practices to get at what the goals are. So I hope that this survey is something that can capture that evolution in the understanding. Where does this go from here? What kinds of things are we looking at in the future with this survey? Are we going to do it every year? Or what is your thought on that?

Jim Isermann (20:13):

Yeah, this will become probably a regular component of our collection. This was a good way. It was a new way for our growers. That was one thing last fall or late fall when we rolled this out, it was a new way to collect this data from our growers. I think it was a pretty convenient way, just the way we did it. So I imagine this will be a staple of how we collect this information moving forward. And the ultimate goal will be then pairing this with that other data set so we are taking steps. This is kind of that beginning of understanding how successful that cover crop is. So we’re wanting move beyond just talking about yielder economics simply in cover crops. We want to start looking at well, what does it mean when it’s a cereal rye cover crop?

Jim Isermann (20:56):

And what does it mean when it actually overwintered successfully, when the grower was planting into a high biomass versus a low biomass? So this is kind of that beginning of collecting that information, determining what is most economical. This is going to give us a lot of the economic information behind that in terms of how much money are they actually putting into it. And then we’ll be able to kind of pair that up with what the goals are of the individual farmer. If they’re looking really for soil health benefits, or maybe they’re looking more for the environmental benefits, we can start having better conversations in terms of what’s the most economical way for them to get to their goal without spending too much money and seeing, making sure that every dollar that they spend is giving them some kind of a return. So it will be a major component, I think, of data collection and matching it up with the rest of the information that we’re gathering going forward.

John Mesko (21:46):

This is great. And I know that right now, a lot of farmers are starting to make those cover crop decisions, thinking about what they want to do here the rest of the season. And so this is going to be interesting information. Where can people go to get the complete survey results?

Jim Isermann (22:03):

Well, the best way is probably to head over to our Facebook or Twitter pages where you’ll find the links to the report, or you can always visit soilhealthpartnership.org if you’re looking for more information.

John Mesko (22:13):

Thank you, Jim, for your work on the development of the survey and in your own area, getting this out. I appreciate being able to visit with you about it and learn more from you about cover crops and about the survey.

Jim Isermann (22:25):

Well, thank you. Appreciate being here.-