Digging In

Wheat cover crop benefits SHP farmer

Wheat cover crop benefits SHP farmer

By SHP Staff on Thursday, 16 January, 2020

In a recent SHP business case emphasizing the weed control benefit of planting a wheat cover crop, SHP farmer Mike Buis shared his soil health journey. 

Mike, with his brother Jeff, farms 3,100 acres of rolling farmland west of Indianapolis, Indiana; together, they own 1,400 acres and rent 1,700 acres. Most of the cropland is in a corn-soybean or corn-soybean-wheat rotation. Mike has about 1/3 of his acres in no-till, 1/3 in minimal tillage, and 1/3 in conventional tillage. He began working with the Soil Health Partnership in 2016 to experiment with cover crops, and has expanded the acres he cover crops beyond his SHP research field. 

Mike now plants a wheat cover crop each year on approximately 300 acres of highly erodible land (HEL). 

Mike broadcasts wheat cover crop seed at approximately 60 pounds per acre with a fall fertilizer application (immediately after harvest) and incorporates both with a vertical tillage tool. Wheat is not harvested, so he terminates the wheat cover crop in the spring when it is approximately 12-14" tall by burning it down with an herbicide application. Because there is no spring tillage, he plants directly into the cover crop residue with a no-till planter.

The biggest benefit of the wheat cover crop, in Mike’s experience, is that he uses fewer herbicides during the growing season. He estimates the value of this weed control benefit to be worth at least $10/acre. Also, although he is not required to add cover crops to his HEL, doing so ensures he is going above and beyond to minimize soil erosion--and significant increases in soil organic matter on Mike’s research field between 2016 and 2018 suggest that Mike might see long-term benefits in soil water holding capacity and nutrient cycling and availability as a result of using cover crops. 

Implementing cover crops on his HEL was a natural fit for Mike after he started experimenting with cover crops on his SHP research field. Because he had already adopted minimum-till on his HEL in order to meet conservation compliance requirements, there was no additional cost, other than the seed itself, to seed or terminate the cover crop. Putting a dollar value on weed control has encouraged Mike to increase the use of cover crops. 

Download the entire business case to read more about Mike’s story and see how cover crops impacted his bottom line.