Angela Knuth’s journey to improved soil health began back in 2005 when she and her husband Kerry made the move to no-till on their Mead, Neb. farm. As third-generation farmers hoping to pass on what they’ve built to the fourth generation, Angela and Kerry are motivated by a desire to leave the land in the very best possible condition for their two sons.
“It is a goal for us to leave the boys with better soils than what we had, and it does take time,” Angela says. “We need to give them something that’s going to make them a living.”
With the switch to no-till, the Knuths found they saved money on tillage equipment and fuel. According to Angela, “We have been pleased to see no decrease in yield. We’re hoping to see that continued decrease in our cost of production and improvement in the soil tilth and microbe activity.”
That goal of improved soil biology is one of the things that led the Knuths to Soil Health Partnership and implementing an on-farm research trial.
“If you get your biology right in your soil, it’s going to pay you back three-fold,” said Angela. “It’s just a matter of, why not?”
As part of their SHP trial, they took steps to pinpoint which cover crops and seed mixes work for their farm in an effort to add greater diversity to their crop rotation, rather than going from just corn to beans and back again. Angela knows that once they can definitively answer their questions about cover crops, the crop diversification piece will be much less work, stress, and risk.
“We’re starting to see that, yeah, this is do-able,” Angela says. “With the diversity, there’s a little more confidence that the future is going to be there for [our sons].”
Ken Rosenow, alongside his family, is the sixth generation to operate his farm – continuing a legacy that started before the Civil War. While he’s proud of his farming history, Ken is also committed to evolving for the future. That’s one of the reasons why, in 2017, he joined SHP to further his cover crop efforts.
“I had always been really interested in conservation and I’ve always thought that cover crops were good. But it was really hard to tell […] if it was really economically sustainable,” Ken shared in this episode of The People of Soil Health Podcast. “When I first talked to the Soil Health Partnership people, that seemed to me what the real basis of the program was: ‘We kind of think [cover crops are] pretty good, but we want to do some real testing and collect a lot of data to prove it and make sure what we know and think can be economically profitable for the farmer.’”
Ken learned from his father the importance of conservation and the pair transitioned to no-till by 1991. Today, he rotates corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay. Ken also incorporates a variety of cover crops (which he seeds through aerial application), including cereal rye, field peas, berseem clover, radishes and sunflowers.
To hear more about Ken’s soil health journey, why he chose to participate in the recent SHP report, Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line, and the advice he offers to those just getting started with cover crops, listen to Episode 28 using the player above or by checking out The People of Soil Health in your favorite podcast player.
Tim Gottman on the farm he runs with his brother, Trent, in Missouri.
Business Case: TJT Gottman Inc.
March 28, 2021
Farm owned by brothers Tim and Trent Gottman
Working with SHP since 2017
Experimenting with cover crops on SHP trial field
Partnering with Missouri Corn, Missouri Soy and Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources on their Edge of Field Water Quality Monitoring Program
Farms in Marion and Shelby Counties
Planting corn-soybean-wheat rotations
For Tim and Trent Gottman, building soil health through reduced tillage and cover crops is critical to reducing erosion on their Missouri farm. By keeping the soil in place, they hold onto valuable nutrients and help protect nearby waterways.
Tim Gottman farms near Monroe City, Missouri. Along with his brother, Trent, they own and operate TJT Gottman, Inc., growing corn, soybeans and wheat. While Tim remembers the days of farming with his dad and grandpa with a moldboard plow, he knows the productivity and longevity of his farm depend on continuing to evolve his approach.
Today, Tim and Trent leverage vertical tillage and cover crops to reduce erosion, maintain nutrients, and protect water quality. Through collaboration with Soil Health Partnership (SHP), Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, they are studying the impacts of these management practices – both on their farm and on the surrounding environment.
Success starts with clear goals
It was in the mid-2000s when Tim says he first started noticing a significant change in weather patterns. Rainfall events seemed more frequent and more extreme in the spring, pushing planting dates back later and later. Over years of watching his soils wash away, he and his brother worked toward strategically approaching erosion control in a way that was financially feasible for their farm.
“I don’t want to be the guy that stands in the shop every time we get a big rain and go, ‘Well…’ and just shrug my shoulders,” Tim said. “It seemed to me we needed to start adopting practices where, when that happens, you haven’t lost all your fertility, you haven’t lost all your soil – you stand to live another day. We had to do something to slow this water from running off.”
So, in 2014, they invested in a Salford® vertical tillage tool and began using cover crops. Along the way, every decision he and his brother made was driven by a singular vision.
“Our goals [with soil health] have always been around reducing erosion. And we believe that, as the soil structure improves, the price tag will be worth it.”
Tim’s approach to erosion control
Tim plants cover crops on 60% of his acres, primarily using cereal rye – because of how well it overwinters and its hardiness – but he also mixes in radishes, turnips and oats on fields with wheat stubble.
On his SHP trial field, he is comparing cover cropped strips to strips with no cover crops. The first couple of years he broadcast applied cover crop seed, similar to what he does on his non-SHP fields. However, in 2018, he chose to start using a drill for cover crop application (the same one he uses to plant wheat). Thanks to better seed-to-soil contact, the drill has helped provide more consistent stands.
Tim Gottman’s Annual Soil Health Approach
When using a cover crop and/or no-till system, management decisions need to be adjusted based on field conditions and weather. Creating a yearly plan can help to identify cost savings, opportunities for maximizing soil health benefits and alternative approaches for unknown circumstances.
The timeline below overviews Tim’s planning process, starting in late summer when cover crop decisions are initiated.
After Corn Harvest
Spring Ahead of Soybeans
Starts having conversations with local ag retailer in late July/early August for cover crop orders
Plans cover crop selection based on current crop rotation, estimated harvest dates and field needs
Begins strategically planning each field’s estimated cover crop application schedule
Contacts ag retailer to have cover crop seed broadcast applied with P&K application for fields going to soybeans or wheat
Targets broadcasted cereal rye rates at 40 lbs. per acre
Initiates pre-plant chemical termination (April/early May), when cover crop growth is still manageable – targets the vegetative growth stage between 2-3 feet
Makes one spring vertical tillage pass, depending on soil moisture and weather conditions (cover crops are dead and turning yellow at this time)
Overall Fertilizer Program
Tim applies lime, P and K as needed for all fields, determined using a three-year grid soil sampling program. In corn, he also uses a split-applied nitrogen program to help optimize both nitrogen rate and timing. This includes applying anhydrous in the spring and top-dressing urea in-season.
Soil health is a learning process
For Tim’s timeline, challenges arise when it comes to time and labor. To cover multiple fields during the harvest season, having a local cooperative or ag retailer broadcast the field with dry fertilizer is ideal.
Another challenge has been finding a cover crop system that works before corn. In general, soybeans are harvested in October so finding an overwintering cover crop that gets well-established before the weather turns, provides erosion control and creates diversity can be difficult. Cereal rye before corn can come with its own set of obstacles and finding winter hardy brassicas and legumes has been a challenge, so Tim is looking into other grasses like barley. Tim continues to trial different species, applications and ideas to find what will work best.
Note: If you are considering planting a grass cover crop before corn, up-front nitrogen is important. Consult with your advisor for best practices when using overwintering grasses before corn.
Soil health efforts are making an impact on erosion & fertility
Through the Missouri Edge of Field Water Quality Monitoring Program, Tim is measuring soil loss on a field with cover crops and one without (these trial fields are located near his SHP field). During the last several years, he has been able to see how much soil he is saving on the cover cropped field, as compared to the one without (Figure 1), which has been about 28 tons (or two tandem dump truck loads) per acre over the last three-and-a-half years.1
That said, Tim notes that he doesn’t necessarily need the numbers to know his efforts have been beneficial.
“We’re not seeing near as much sheet erosion as we have in the past, where you would see our grass waterways just fill up with top soil.”
By looking at data from both SHP’s research and the edge-of-field study, we can see that soil structure plays a big role in keeping that soil in place. One way to evaluate soil structure is by testing for aggregate stability, which measures how well the soil holds together during rain events and is known to contribute to improved moisture infiltration. Tim has seen a significant increase in aggregate stability on his SHP trial field in the cover cropped strips (Figure 2).
Measuring soil loss via suspended solids
Evaluating changes in aggregate stability
Figure 1. Soil loss 2017-2020 between cover cropped and non-cover cropped trial fields in the Missouri Edge of Field Water Quality Monitoring Program
Figure 2: Changes in aggregate stability on Tim Gottman’s SHP trial field
Along with these benefits, Tim has seen no significant yield drag and relatively little change in net income. He said, “I think people look at the cash cost of [cover crops], but if you can save 5-10% in fertilizer per year and it stays in the soil instead of running off through erosion – I don’t have to do the math; that’s money ahead.”
1 It is important to note that, while cover crops have helped reduce erosion on that field, the non-cover cropped field has additional characteristics (e.g., topography) that made it especially susceptible to erosion – making the differences between the two fields particularly stark.
Research tells the story of agricultural sustainability
As an active member of the Missouri agriculture community, Tim knows the value of data collection in conversations around sustainability. That’s one of the big reasons he got involved in these studies. In addition to talking with his neighbors and land owners about the steps he’s taking to build soil health and reduce erosion, he believes that hard numbers help farmers advocate for themselves with elected officials.
“Any time we can show that farmers are trying to be stewards of the land and doing what we can to keep these nutrients from running off, then we can have a positive voice.”
For Daryl Maple, Maple Farms is much more than just a farming operation. It’s a legacy. Purchased by his great-grandfather in 1930, Daryl – alongside his cousins, brother and father – still own and operate the original 160 acres, in addition to the expanded area that has come with more than 90 years of experience. Being among the fourth generation taking over the farm gives Daryl an inherent sense of responsibility to maintain the rich soils his part of the country is known for.
“We just wanted to find ways to make our farm more sustainable. That word has been a very big buzzword the last four or five years, and so sustainability means different things to different operations and growers. For us, we’re trying to find a way to be economically sustainable, and environmentally sustainable as well.”
Maple Farms’ partnership with SHP started in 2016, and the family has since been experimenting with reduced tillage and cover crops. Along the way, they’ve valued the non-stop learning process that comes with on-farm research of this type. Whether it’s figuring out the best kind of equipment to use for field prep that won’t also cause significant cover crop damage or determining the best method for cover crop seeding that allows for good establishment around their cash crop harvest schedule – the lessons seem to always keep coming.
“We’re very blessed and we have good crops year in, year out. And so, for my family and most of the farmers in this area, we just do what we’ve always done,” Daryl said. “[But] we’re trying to bridge that gap and figure out how to do reduced tillage and still get the high yields and produce the high-quality, high-value crops that we like to grow on this farm.”
Tune in to the full episode of The People of Soil Health – using the player above or subscribing in your favorite podcast player – to hear more about the journey Maple Farms continues to take toward improved soil health and building a legacy for their farm.
As you can see in the graphs below, experienced cover crop adopters (more than five years of experience with the practice) had some of the lowest costs and highest profitability per acre of anyone in our study – including both recent cover crop adopters (those with five years of less experience with the practice) and those using conventional tillage with no cover crops. So how did they do it?
Per-acre costs by tillage and cover crop groups, corn
Per-acre costs by tillage and cover crop groups, soybeans
Identifying ways to reduce seed costs
There is one line item that inevitably arises when farmers adopt cover crops – new expenses for cover crop seed. While this may come as no surprise, finding ways to reduce these costs is one of the ways experienced cover crop users save money as compared to those just starting out. Over the years, experienced adopters are often able to identify savings by:
Experienced cover crop users were also able to identify cost savings by adjusting their seeding method to identify the best approach for their operation. Some found time and labor savings by contracting out broadcast or aerial application of their cover crop seed. Others found that drilling the seed with existing equipment was the most cost-effective given their geographic, soil, and labor needs. And, in many cases, farmers found the best way to reduce cover crop costs on their farms was to combine cover crop seeding with other field operations, such as broadcasting seed with a fall fertilizer application or incorporating with a fall tillage pass.
Using program support where available
For some experienced cover crop users, another way to save costs was to use conservation program funding where possible. Since cover crop adoption does come with a learning curve and up-front costs, these programs help farmers make the transition with less financial risk. Some of the programs used included:
USDA NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)
USDA NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)
North Racoon Farm to River Partnership (Iowa-specific)
Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Cover Crop Crop Insurance Project (Iowa-specific)
While these programs usually don’t fully cover the costs of implementing a cover crop, they help farmers in the implementation phase as they are finding what works best on their farm and as they start to experience the soil health benefits of this practice.
There’s no doubt about it – the financial dynamics of adopting cover crops are less straightforward than for conservation tillage. However, when approached as a long-term investment that can provide sustained benefits from soil health and soil function over time, the farmers featured in Conservation’s Impact on the Farm Bottom Line provide evidence that the profitability dynamics of cover crops over time begin to look more favorable.
There is a lot of talk these days about the power of “influencers” – people on social media that drive conversation and action. For Bryan Boyle, though, being a positive influence in the community was important long before the arrival of Instagram.
Bryan is the manager of Deerfield Farms in Deerfield, Ohio and is also active with their sister company, Deerfield Ag Services, which provides inputs and other agricultural supplies to local farmers.
According to Bryan, the two businesses are symbiotic. Deerfield Ag Services can focus on providing high-quality products and expertise to its farmer clients, while the farm can try out new practices and products before offering them to customers. By experimenting with new approaches on the farming operation, the team brings leadership and influence to their neighbors and community members – assuring that every recommendation is made with confidence.
In 2015, Deerfield Farms began working with Soil Health Partnership in an on-farm research project. Bryan took this leap on the recommendation of a colleague who pushed him out of his comfort zone and encouraged him to try new practices that were working for other farms similar to theirs.
“We decided to take part in SHP because we wanted to see economics over the long term to see how soil health is beneficial to us. Changes in the soil take time and we think we need to be in it for the long term,” said Bryan.
The Deerfield Farms SHP plot is looking at long-term no-till and cover crop practices versus vertical tillage and no cover crop production systems. In addition to evaluating the economics of the conservation approaches, they also want to be part of creating solutions for the water quality issues facing Ohio over the last few years.
Now, five years later and having signed a new five-year contract with SHP, they are grateful for the partnership via expertise, some cost sharing, and assistance teaching other farmers about their results. Collaborating with SHP has only expanded Deerfield Farms’ ability to influence farmers in their area to consider less tillage and more cover crops.
“We, as growers, feel responsible. We are stewards of the land that we farm, so we obviously feel responsible for leaving it better than how we found it and we want it to continue being efficient and profitable for future generations,” said Bryan.
In exciting new research published in the journal Nature Food, Soil Health Partnership – in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy – set out to answer the question: how do cover crops impact soil health indicators in SHP trials? Do we see evidence of changes in the soil, and how quickly do they show up in the data?
Although it might sound obvious that cover crops benefit soil health, much of the research on how soil health changes with adjustments in management practices is conducted in controlled, experimental settings—and many soil health indicators and processes respond slowly to management. That’s why it’s so exciting that we found evidence of soil health improving in the first few years of cover crop use on farms participating in SHP.
Changes seen in microbial activity, soil structure and soil carbon
Using data from 96 farms (see map to the right) over 3-5 years, we looked for changes in six key soil health indicators that are part of the Cornell Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health that reflect the biological and physical properties of the soil: active carbon, soil organic matter, aggregate stability, available water capacity, respiration and soil protein. Four of these indicators showed evidence of change with cover crops, and the effect of the cover crop increased with the amount of time cover crops had been used on the field:
Active carbon and soil organic matter – different measures of carbon in the soil that are critical to how soil functions
Respiration – an indicator of microbial activity in the soil that can contribute to nutrient cycling and residue turnover on the field
Aggregate stability – an indicator of soil structure measured by how well soil withstands simulated rainfall in the lab; this can reflect how well water might infiltrate into soil (rather than running off the soil surface), and therefore soil’s erodibility
These indicators can translate into improvements in soil function around soil nutrient cycling and water management on the field, which can have benefits to farmers ranging from less erosion to fewer wet spots to longer planting/harvest windows thanks to improved field conditions.
Time and experience make a difference for soil health indicators
Similar to other research conducted by SHP, this study found that the benefits of soil health management are amplified with time and experience. With cover crops, we found that all of the soil health indicators mentioned earlier improve the longer this practice is in place (see below). This reinforces our recommendation that cover crops should be approached as a long-term investment and strategy, both to give growers a chance to optimize their system and to recognize the greatest benefits to soil health.
Changes in the soil are one of the many benefits of cover crops
Although our work did show that soil health indicators are responding to cover crops, it’s also important to remember that, in many cases, these changes are small and still happen relatively slowly. For example, in our dataset, aggregate stability increased by 1.02% per year more on cover crop strips than control strips—and soil organic matter by 0.01% more per year. This is a big reason why farmers should not expect to see huge changes in indicators like soil organic matter in the first 3-5 years of cover crop use, or else they might run the risk of being disappointed.
“This isn’t to say that soils aren’t undergoing real changes early on, but just that it is hard to detect small changes with existing methods,” says Stephen Wood, Senior Scientist for Agriculture and Food Systems at The Nature Conservancy and a co-author of the study. “For instance, with organic matter and carbon, there’s a lot of carbon already in the soil, so what we’re trying to detect can be like finding a needle in a haystack early on.”
Laboratory indicators are also somewhat limited in their ability to reflect soil function in the field—so it’s important that farmers pay attention to how indicators like infiltration, soil structure, and compaction are changing over time. Just like taking a child’s temperature doesn’t tell us if they have a cough when they are sick, we can’t expect that laboratory indicators will give us a complete picture of soil health.
There is also need for more science that translates how these soil health indicators are related to agronomic and environmental benefits that farmers and society care about. “It’s great to be able to show that soil health indicators increase,” says Maria Bowman, lead scientist at SHP and the other co-author on the study. “But we need to be able to go the next step and say how much yields, yield resilience, and even profitability are likely to be impacted when you see a certain change in a soil health indicator.”
Finally, although observable changes in the soil can be an important benefit of cover crops, we know that some of the other benefits cover crops can provide might show up more quickly than changes in the soil—and be just as valuable. For example, cover crops can scavenge excess nitrogen and keep a living root in the soil during winter months when soil is most vulnerable to nutrient loss and erosion—which has proven benefits for water quality. Cover crop residue can also play a role in suppressing weeds that affect cash crop production and controlling the incidence in herbicide resistant weeds.
“When combined with longer-term changes in soil health, these short-term benefits add up – and can contribute to making cover crops part of a resilient and profitable soil health management system,” Bowman said. “With partners like TNC, we look forward to continuing to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on agronomic, environmental, and soil health outcomes.”