Tim Seifert

Tim Seifert still works the land his grandfather began farming in 1945.  The Auburn, Illinois farm now boasts 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans and the conservation practices needed to make sure the farm is ready to hand off to the fourth generation.

“We have to take care of the soil,” says Tim. “Sometimes that may not be easy, but farming has never been easy. We need it to be healthy for the next generation.”

Tim joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2014 to look at how cover crops can work in real-life farm situations.  Demonstration farmers like Tim participate in the program by collecting data on test plots with the help of field managers and their agronomists. Those test plots include cover crops, nutrient management and conservation tillage.

Cover crops haven’t come without challenges on the Seifert farm. Time is limited during the harvest—the key time to put in cover crops. And knowing when to plant, what variety cover crops to use, and waiting for good weather are all challenging. The challenges continue in the spring with timing the cover crop termination advance of planting. But Tim has never been one to shy away from hard work or a challenge.

“I am ready to see if cover crops will help keep nitrogen out of the waterways and instead in our soil. I am still learning, and I’m ready to see how it impacts the bottom line,” said Tim. “We’re stewards of the soil. It was left to us by previous generation. I want that legacy to continue long into the future.”

Mark Mueller

Mark Mueller is the fourth generation to raise a family and a crop on their family farm in Waverly, Iowa.  He grows 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and specialty beans, in addition to the cereal rye and tillage radishes, hairy vetch, and other legumes he’s been using as cover crops since 2006.

In 2007, Mark went completely no-till, including corn following corn.  Prior, they were a minimum-tillage farm with some fields no-till in the late 1990s.

Mark says he has gradually used less nitrogen overall. He did begin using starter fertilizer in 2015. The farm utilizes manure from a nearby dairy and hasn’t applied commercial fertilizers on those fields since 2005.

“I’ve learned a lot more about the science of soil health,” Mark says. “Specifically, I gained knowledge on nutrient availability, the soil’s microbiome and improving tilth, organic matter and reducing nutrients leaving the field.”

Brian Martin

Brian Martin farms 35 percent of Martin Row Crops in Centralia, Missouri.  He is a fifth-generation farmer on a family farm that once focused on diversified crops and livestock, but now features row crops and a cow-calf operation.  Brian entered the partnership in 2003 while still in high school and continues to grow his part of the farm while also providing independent crop consulting services for other farmers.

Brian has 80 acres dedicated to the Soil Health Partnership practices, including no-till corn and soybeans, cover crops like radishes, turnips, rye, wheat, and barley, and a nutrient management plan based on 2.5 acre grids from which soil samples help him determine how to split-apply nitrogen.

“I joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2017 because of my interest and passion for soil conservation and so that we can show that these management practices have a long-term economic benefit to our industry and future generations,” Brian said.

As much as anything, Brian has benefitted by learning from other farmers also in the partnership, best practices and sharing of ideas. He says that some of these practices have improved water infiltration rates and soil porosity on his farm. However, many of the metrics measuring improvement can take many years to change. It is a long-term process.

“Ultimately, I believe it is very important that we share what we’re doing with end-users and consumers as often as possible,” Brian said, “and that we are ever striving to become more efficient and environmentally conservative, as well as sustainable.”

Jason Lay

Jason is the third generation in his family to farm this land. After working in the corporate world, Jason had the opportunity to buy out his uncle and began farming the 2,500 acre farm in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois full-time in 2003.

The Lay farm grows a rotation of corn and soybeans. For the last nine years, Jason has utilized strip tillage for his corn acres. He added no-till on soybeans in 2011. Jason has also added cover crops to his practices, primarily using rye grass, and occasionally oats and crimson clover. He currently has 200 acres in cover crops.

Increased testing is one of the biggest improvements Jason has made in his farming practices—testing soil and stalk nitrate levels. Jason also uses Variable Rate Technology to precisely target what his soil needs in nutrients and when.

“I am personally impressed with the partners that have come together as part of the Soil Health Partnership. Corporate partners, conservation partners and farmers—all working together toward the same goals. I plan on farming for a long while, and we have to be smarter as an industry how we do things. I can help bring about that change by adopting new practices and setting an example for others to follow.”

Ryan Larson

Ryan grew up on a dairy farm, but his family sold their cows in the ‘90s and rented out the ground. After graduating from college in 2013, Ryan persuaded his parents to let him rent their 160 acres and has now grown his operation to 450 acres. He also has a cow-calf operation consisting of 40 beef cows in Garretson, South Dakota. 

Ryan attempted conventional tillage the first five years he farmed, but he experienced soil erosion. After hearing a speaker talk about transitioning to no-till, he decided to try it. He also started conducting his own comparison tests between no-till and conventional planting, while simultaneously experimenting with cover crops.

With limited labor and assets, Ryan has found no-till saves him money because he doesn’t need as much equipment or horsepower, and he saves valuable time by not doing tillage.

Ryan’s trial started with a no-till field where he interseeded a cover crop mix into v3 standing corn. Following the corn harvest, he planted rye, which he will terminate before no-tilling soybeans next spring. Ryan’s plot is looking at the effects of cover crops and no cover crops in the same field. He will be establishing a cover crop every year for the next five years.

These same conservation practices have major value for the cattle side of the farm as well.  Ryan implemented strip grazing cover crops and pasture in the summer, which provides 2-7 days’ worth of feed at a time to his cows. Strip grazing has allowed him to better ration his feed, ensure the cows are not eating all the most nutritious grass first, and keep his feed quality consistent. He saves time not having to haul as much manure because it’s evenly distributed.

Justin Knopf

Justin Knopf believes the better the soil is functioning, the better the relationship between the plants and the soil biology, resulting in healthier crops. He is invested in building better soil on his farm in Gypsum, Kansas where he grows wheat, corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, alfalfa and triticale with his dad and brother.

Justin needs the soil to be functioning well to effectively capture rain in heavy rainfall events, to prevent erosion, and also to store water to make it available when plants need it.

He is conducting an enhanced practice trial on their SHP plot over five that will consist of adding a cover crop to any open window between grain crops compared to the same system with no cover crops.

This research will allow Justin to compare how extending the growing season with cover crops, and how maintaining living roots in their soils for a longer period each year affects their unique crop rotation.

Justin has already seen enhanced soil biology with the presence of living roots throughout the year along with increased diversity and more opportunity to capture carbon and put it into the soil.

Kirk Kimble

Kirk and Tiona Kimble are the fifth generation farming their 2000 acres in Chillicothe, Illinois. They are invested in preserving this family heritage for their three daughters, all of which help on the farm today.

Kirk has used numerous covers and combinations through the years: cereal rye, annual rye, vetch, oats, radishes, sunflowers and sun hemp. He puts a cover crop on every acre.

“I know I have my topsoil and it isn’t washed down the river. It’s a justifiable cost,” he said.

Kirk also practices no-till on every acre. When Kirk began farming, he tried no-till to save money by not purchasing more equipment, and he liked the results. With the big rain events occurring more frequently, Kirk says it just works well on his land for keeping erosion at bay.

He soil tests regularly, and depending on the results, does either variable rate or blanket rate application of nutrients. He does not do fall application of nitrogen.

“I believe in the practices that I have implemented, but the Soil Health Partnership is documenting them scientifically,” said Kirk. “I like seeing what is happening in my soil, year over year, and understanding how I can make it better. I like being part of a group that is promoting soil health and conserving our soil resource.”

Hayden Guetterman

Guetterman Brothers Family Farms is a row crop operation with a rotation of soybeans, corn and winter wheat on more than 10,000 acres in Eastern Kansas. They also operate a bonded grain elevator. Hayden Guetterman returned home from college in 2017 to farm full time and is part of the 5th generation, farming alongside his grandpa, dad, and three uncles.

Conservation has been a family value passed down in this farming family.  Their farm takes pride in reducing soil erosion and improving soil health.  Hayden joined SHP to learn data that will support if recommended practices would be beneficial to their farming operation, because although they have always been on the cutting edge of implementing soil health practices, they have not done much on-farm research. 

Currently, Hayden is experimenting with cover crop trials to see how quickly they can improve soil organic matter and soil biology.  Already he has observed increased organic matter, more earthworm activity, and the soil’s ability to hold moisture longer during dry spells.

SHP’s ability to help them collect and analyze data saves them time and helps them make informed decisions about their soil health practices. The farm also looks to SHP to help them define soil health success.

Carl Eliason

Carl Eliason is a fourth-generation farmer on a mission to improve soil health and organic matter on his 240 acres of corn, soybeans, and small grains in Renner, South Dakota. 

After sharing his experiences trying no-till and cover crops on social media, a local Soil Health Partnership field manager reached out to Carl.  He joined SHP because he is interested in gaining real-world experience with soil health practices and wants the scientific evidence to prove the practices work. 

His current trials include no-till versus conventional tillage. He also plans to start trials with aerial broadcasting of rye cover into corn, along with no-tilling soybeans into the rye the following year.

Since implementing no-till and adding cover crops, Carl’s farm no longer has soil moving down the hills, along with minimal erosion. He has also experienced better yields since implementing the 3-way rotation. He prefers no-till to conventional tillage because he feels that the ground is mellow and has less crusting, allowing for better emergence. He also reports using significantly less fuel.

Cover Cropping and Soil Health in 2020

Most of us recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cover cropping. That makes accessing good data and insights – from across different geographies, weather patterns, and farming systems – absolutely critical. To address this need, Soil Health Partnership (SHP) Field Managers Dustin Brucker and Jim Isermann, along with SHP’s Michigan Research Manager Kristin Poley, recently led a Soil Sessions webinar highlighting cover crop observations from across the Midwest and the details of SHP’s new field check protocols. 

With this information, growers, agronomists and other key partners can more effectively consider how cover cropping fits their operation, design more tailored approaches to implementation, and tap into the experience of others in order to increase the chance for success. 

Good information in, good information out

Collecting in-field data and observations is core to the work of SHP’s field team. As such, all three panelists shared how they are implementing a new approach to data collection – field checks. Starting with cover crop planting, SHP field managers are collecting information at four key points throughout the growing season:

  • Field Check 1 – fall, post-harvest/cover crop planting
  • Field Check 2 – spring, pre-plant, spring cover crop establishment
  • Field Check 3 – spring, post-plant
  • Field Check 4 – mid-season (e.g., following ear set in corn, pod set in soybeans)

At each of these touchpoints, field managers are evaluating multiple data points such as soil temperature, residue cover, and the presence of various weeds, diseases and insects.

While sampling in spring 2020 has been somewhat inconsistent due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Poley notes that, “Our team has put forth incredible effort to make this data collection process consistent across the network in order to magnify its impact.”

Learn from others to create an effective cover cropping approach

For growers considering cover cropping or who are looking to tweak their current program, it can help to look at what others have done and where they’ve seen success.

“I recommend getting as much advice as possible on management techniques prior to planting the cover crop,” says Brucker. “To have long-term impact from cover cropping, growers need to experience initial success – otherwise you run the risk of getting a ‘bad taste in your mouth’ and walking away before getting the full benefit. Have a good plan backed by careful thought.”

This is where SHP trial data comes in handy. Brucker and Isermann shared several observations from farms they partner with in Iowa and Illinois, which growers considering cover crops should take into consideration:

  • The cool, wet fall that many growers experienced in 2019 impacted who was and wasn’t able to plant cover crops post-harvest. For those who were able to plant, it went in late in many places – impacting overall growth and benefit.
  • Where cover crops were planted, growth varied by application method. Both Brucker and Isermann observed better growth with drilled or interseeded application as compared to aerial application (especially in soybeans). 
  • Cover crop impact on soil temperature continues to be measured. At Field Check 3, it appears that some are seeing benefit from cover cropping, where residue from cover crops creates cooler soil temperatures – thus impacting moisture retention.
  • Should you plant green or not? Jury’s still out. Isermann noted that several farms he works with were able to terminate earlier in 2020 as compared to 2019, simply because of more favorable planting conditions this year (especially for soybeans). For those who are planting green, he’s seeing more success planting into smaller cover crop plants. He also reiterated the importance of terminating in a timely manner, which is even more important in corn.

The opportunities for SHP data are endless

In the final segment of the webinar, Poley highlighted early findings from trial data. This information is collected using Survey123, an app within ArcGIS Online. She highlighted that this platform allows SHP to collect data in a way that’s customizable, as well as easy to use and access.

“From a science perspective, I hope growers, agronomists and our other industry partners recognize how powerful this data collection effort is. The immense magnitude of our dataset creates an equally immense potential for analyses, learning, and adaptation based on findings,” she says. 

Some key takeaways from 2020 that Poley highlighted include:

  • At Field Check 2 (spring, pre-plant):
    • Grass species continue to be the most popular cover crop (47% of fields with an established cover crop included grass species)
      • Ground coverage varies widely, with growers experiencing either low (less than 25%) or high (more than 75%) coverage
      • Stand count ranges from <148,000 plants per acre to more than 593,000 plants per acre, with the bulk of samples ranging from 296,000-444,000 plants per acre
    • There’s an opportunity for future research, specifically around planting different cover crop species and the impact of single vs. mixed species planting
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.26° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping
  • At Field Check 3 (spring, post-plant):
    • Early season cash crops show a nearly even split between corn (55%) and soybeans (44%)
      • Corn:
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V3
        • Average corn stand count at around 31,000 plants/acre
      • Soybeans
        • Field Check 3 most often occurred at V(n) or V2
        • Average soybean stand count at around 124,500 plants/acre
    • Soil temperatures were, on average, 0.98° warmer in strips without current season cover cropping 

While these highlights are useful, Poley emphasizes that the 2020 field dataset is not complete. She looks forward to combining this information with field management, yield, and additional soils data for even deeper insights. SHP will also be looking at how this data corresponds to long-term environmental and economic benefits.

According to Poley, “We’ve only scratched the surface of the relationships and patterns that this dataset undoubtably holds.”

Digging In

When it comes to cover cropping, no two farms are the same. Varying weather conditions, soil types and management practices impact the potential benefit of cover cropping and other soil health practices on any given operation. With that in mind, SHP continues to collect real-time, real-world data in order to help growers make decisions that are most relevant and effective for their business. Using the insights shared in this post and in the full webinar session, growers can feel more comfortable and confident making cover crop decisions that serve their unique situation and goals.

To access this full webinar or to watch past SHP webinars, check out our Soil Sessions library here.