Dave Moose can already see the benefits of no-till and cover crops on his Illinois farm—more worms, more organic matter and better soil retention. But he wants to see quantifiable research that will clearly spell out the pros and cons for every farmer interested in pursuing these practices.
The Moose farm is a 1400-acre row crop operation with soybeans and corn. Dave started farming with his father in 1976. He first got into cover crops in 2011. Dave has been no-till on his farm since 1985 but added cover crops to provide additional organic matter into the soil that he wasn’t seeing from no-till alone. His cover crops include cereal rye and crimson clover, with occasional rapeseed and tillage radishes if the season allows.
“Just as with no-till, we had some bumps with cover crops early on,” he said. “But I am committed to cover crops. I want to see how this is going to work long term.”
Dave knows that it will take more substantive proof to get others on board. He joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2014 because he wanted definitive research to lay out the benefits of cover crops. And he wants to fully understand the downsides as well, so everyone knows the reality.
“It’s very important what we do with our land,” Dave said. “I think there’s going to be more rules and regulations headed our way, and they will target how our practices impact the watershed. We need to get ahead of these regulations and show what we can do.”
A third-generation farmer, Kerry Knuth started out farming with his dad and grandfather. Today, Kerry and Angela Knuth farm 2,200 acres with their two sons Gregory and Garrison in Mead, Nebraska.
The Knuths moved to no tillage for their soybeans and corn, including some strip tillage for some corn acres in 2005.
“We like the cost savings we’ve seen on no-till. We don’t have to own tillage equipment and we don’t have to run it across the field,” said 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.”
Since 2012, the Knuths have been moving toward a more diversified rotation alongside traditional corn and soybeans. They have added wheat, sorghum sudan grass, and cover crops for grazing into their rotation, and are beginning the transition process to non-GMO/organic on a portion of their acres.
“We joined the Soil Health Partnership in 2017 because we want to learn how to make our soils better, regenerate them and we need help with that,” said Angela. “We’re not scientists and we want to know how these practices improve our soil. We look forward to learning more with the partnership.”
Learning more is starting with fall soil sampling and building a history of each farm. The Knuths look forward to combining that data with the latest software and hardware technology to create and apply a plan for each field.
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.
The Soil Health Partnership conducted a detailed survey on cover crops with more than 80 farmers across 11 states in the SHP network about cover crop usage on their trial sites in the fall of 2019. The Cover Crop Planting Report is now available. The data will be used in future analyses for looking at how cover crops impact soil health, agronomic outcomes, and farmer profitability.
“We know the farmers in our network are innovators and that there is a huge range of cover crop management practices across our network–depending on the farmer’s management goals, where they are located, their soils, cropping system, etc.,” said Maria Bowman, Lead Scientist for the Soil Health Partnership. “My hope is to give SHP farmers along with farmers outside our network some context for the types of practices that are common and how much they cost, while building our dataset to answer other important questions about cover crops and what types of management practices lead to successful outcomes.”
Bowman says the most significant finding was that although more than half of farmers planted between the middle of September and the beginning of November, almost 40% planted before or after these dates, and 25% of farmers responding to the survey interseeded or overseeded the cover crop into a standing cash crop. This means that farmers are using a wide range of strategies to get cover crops out on their fields, especially in higher latitudes where there are timing and labor constraints to getting a cover crop in after harvest.
Cover crop mix
Fifty-three percent of the farmers surveyed reported planting a cover crop mix of two or more species.
The breakdown included 47% planting a single-species, 31% planting a mix of two to three species, and 16% planting a mix of more than three species.
For the 53% planting a mix, the most common species that farmers disclosed they used included:
The planting time depended on the region, cash crop rotation, and species.
In 2019, more than half of farmers planted their cover crops between September 15th and November 3rd.
Seventy-four percent of farmers said in 2019 they planted cover crops after harvest, while 25% interseeded or overseeded them.
The median cost of cover crop seed and applying that cover crop seed across the SHP network was $15/acre and $12/acre in 2019, respectively. However, this varied according to the mix and seeding method.
Of those planting a cover crop, 31% report contracting someone outside of their operation to plant it.
Popularity of cereal rye
Almost half of all farmers planted a single species cover crop. Of these, 80% of farmers planted cereal rye.
“Cereal rye is popular because it produces a large amount of biomass, which can keep soil in place, scavenge residual nitrogen, or provide weed-suppressing residue depending on the cover crop goals,” said Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager in Northern Illinois and Iowa. “It also is winter hardy, allowing for a wide planting window, relatively easy to chemically terminate, and seed is rather cheap.”
Additional data is being collected this year to see how the cover crops developed and the impact on agronomic outcomes for the 2020 cash crop.
The Soil Health Partnership’s Cover Crop Planting Report shows that farmers are using diverse strategies to plant cover crops and a variety of plant species to accomplish their soil health goals.
SHP is the flagship sustainability program of the National Corn Growers Association. They conducted a detailed survey on cover crops with more than 80 farmers across 11 states in the SHP network about cover crop usage on their trial sites in the fall of 2019.
“We know farmers in our network are innovators, and that there is a huge range of cover crop management practices across our network depending on the farmer’s management goals, where they are located, their soils, and cropping systems,” said Dr. Maria Bowman, Lead Scientist for the Soil Health Partnership.
Bowman says the most significant finding was that although more than half of farmers planted their cover crops between the middle of September and the beginning of November, almost 40% planted before or after these dates. In addition, 25% of farmers responding to the survey interseeded or overseeded the cover crop into a standing cash crop.
“This means that farmers are using a wide range of strategies to get cover crops out on their fields, especially in higher latitudes where there are timing and labor constraints to getting a cover crop in after harvest,” said Bowman.
The intent is to provide SHP farmers as well as those outside the network context on cover crop usage, practices and cost. The dataset will help answer important questions about what type of management practices lead to successful outcomes. The most widely planted cover crop species was cereal rye. Of the farmers who planted a single species, 80% planted cereal rye, and it was also present in 50% of cover crop mixes.
“Cereal rye is popular because it produces a large amount of biomass, which can keep soil in place, scavenge residual nitrogen, or provide weed-suppressing residue depending on the cover crop goals,” said Jim Isermann, SHP Field Manager in Illinois and Wisconsin. “It also is winter hardy, allowing for a wide planting window, relatively easy to chemically terminate, and seed is rather cheap.”
Fifty three percent of farmers reported planting a cover crop mix of two or more species. The five most popular species in mixes included in order: cereal rye, oats, rapeseed, radish and clover.
When it comes to cost, the median cost of cover crop seed was $15 per acre and to apply it was $12 per acre. Those costs vary according to the mix and seeding method used.
Additional data are being collected this year to see how the cover crops developed and the impact on agronomic outcomes for the 2020 cash crop.
The Soil Health Partnership is a farmer-led initiative that promotes the adoption of soil health practices for economic and environmental benefit. A program of the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the partnership extends to more than 200 working farms in 16 states. While building a peer-to-peer network, SHP collects on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of soil health practices on the soil, the environment, and the farmer’s bottom line. For more information, visit https://soilhealthpartnership.org.
About National Corn Growers Association
Founded in 1957, the National Corn Growers Association represents nearly 40,000 dues-paying corn farmers nationwide and the interests of more than 300,000 growers who contribute through corn checkoff programs in their states. NCGA and its 50 affiliated state associations and checkoff organizations work together to create and increase opportunities for their members and their industry.
Prices and yield: two of a farmer’s biggest concerns in any given year. For SHP farmer Steve Berger, soil conservation is one of his concerns—and he firmly believes it benefits his bottom line.
Steve and his family raise corn, soybeans, and pigs in southeast Iowa. Steve’s father had a began implementing no-till on the land in the 1970s and it was a natural progression for Steve to begin putting in cereal rye.
“No-till was certainly helping with erosion remediation but it wasn’t adding organic matter like cover crops do,” says Steve. “I know that if we build organic matter, we boost our corn yields further. Soybeans are already increasing because of cover crops and no-till.”
Steve acknowledges change doesn’t come easily. But he points to the Soil Health Partnership and peer groups as a good way to learn and receive support to make the transition from conventional tillage to reduced tillage and cover crops.
“You don’t just go from an intensive tillage operation to no-till without some challenges,” he said. “That’s why a lot of farmers just don’t adopt. These peer groups from the partnership are a good way to help work through those challenges.”
Steve adds farmers still need to make a living, which is why data gathered by SHP could be helpful. As an early adopter, he has seen strong improvements in his soil – and his yields, which track above-average – from years of cover crops.
“I think it’s possible to marry the two ideas of soil conservation and crop production, and the Soil Health Partnership is the perfect group to do this,” he said.
Brent Bible has practiced no-till farming and used cover crops for several years on some of his nearly 3,000-acre farm using a scattered approach without measurable results. By joining the Soil Health Partnership, he takes a more disciplined approach, looking for a better understanding of soil health, improvement in his operation’s efficiencies and enhancement of his bottom line.
Five years ago, Brent began using cover crops on several fields. He also implemented precision farming—grid soil sampling and applying fertilizer using GPS.
“We are more precise about fertilizer placement, timing and quantity,” he said. “We don’t want to waste money or harm our soil by applying too much fertilizer.”
Brent hopes that with the focus and discipline of the SHP, he will be able to compare and contrast his soil and crop performance and really learn something that makes a difference.
“Being in the partnership will allow me to look at trends over time that improve my soil’s health,” he noted. “It’s a more disciplined approach that forces me to focus on cover crops and no-till over a five-year period.”
Even early in the program, Brent began to see a difference with the cover crop implementation and how his soil looks and behaves.
“We are doing something unique and exciting with the Soil Health Partnership that will keep these fields sustainable and pumping out great yields long beyond my lifetime,” he said.
Terry Bachtold of Strawn, Illinois, has been farming his entire life. He grew up with cattle and hogs along with an annual rotation of oats, soybeans, corn and hay.
He appreciates cover crops to naturally increase organic matter and values the return to the old ways via a shorter term, similar rotation system.
“We have come a long way in technology as far as nutrient management, but I think the next leap forward is going to be improving soil through practices like cover crops and no-till,” said Terry. “Organic matter is basically what holds the soil together. If you don’t have organic matter, you’re not going to raise a crop.”
Terry is also interested in cover crops because of their ability to suppress weeds and hold nitrogen for use by growing plants in the next crop year.
He’s hopeful that incorporating cover crops will reduce his commercial application of nitrogen, but only time—and research with the Soil Health Partnership—will tell.
“As you increase the organic matter, you also increase the amount of nitrogen as it decomposes from plants will release back naturally,” Terry explains. “Each one percent of organic matter is basically 20-30 pounds of nitrogen that’s available to the crop and gets released every year out of your soil.”
When planting cover crops, there are many options, such as drilling, broadcasting, interseeding, or overseeding seeding. The accessibility to equipment and labor available are often deciding factors.
Aerial application of cover crops has become a method that farmers have started to utilize to give them the advantage of early application. By applying earlier in the year, farmers can see better growth out of winter kill species and better overwintering of winter hardy cover crops.
When applying cover crop seed into a standing soybean crop, farmers need to evaluate plant stages before flying on the seed. The main goal is to target when the leaves are turning yellow before leaf drop. By spreading on the seed before leaf drop, farmers get better seed to soil contact and give the seed a better moisture bed when the leaves fall. There is some concern that the soybean leaves dropping will form a mat of material that will smother the seeds. Adding something like oats to the mix will help aid in pushing up through that residue to help other smaller seeds, like rape, to emerge. Beans planted in 30 inch rows rather than 15 inch rows may show improved establishment due to more light getting to the soil surface.
Another important aspect to a successful aerial application is (of course) the weather and soil conditions. Having moisture in the soil before application helps the seeds to start germinating rather than applying to a dry seed bed. A rain after application also helps to get those seeds germinating and improves contact with the soil.
When thinking about what cover crop to use, start with addressing your cover crop goals. Peterson recommended an annual rye, oats, radish and clover mix. In most areas of Illinois, try getting this mix on before September 15th. The annual rye and clover are what we hope to overwinter, the oats will help the smaller seeds succeed while adding a “buffer” to help protect the less winter hardy seeds. Unfortunately, I haven’t observed much success with the radishes getting substantial growth with aerial seeding in 2018 or 2019. Trying something like a rape or clover mix with a grass instead of radishes if you cannot meet the September fly-on date. Make sure to consult your aerial applicator for seeding rate recommendations, aerial application will be different from drilling a cover crop.
One of the biggest challenges of aerial application is getting a good stand. While most crops go directly into the soil, aerial applications are scattered on the soil surface which can lead to less consistency in the stand. A preventative measure that can create a big impact is enrolling the assistance of an experienced pilot. This can help to ensure that the seed is spread within the perimeter of the field at a consistent rate across the field.
One main issue in 2019 was the delayed harvest, which led to a continued shading of the cover crop trying to establish behind the cash crop. That delay can lead to lighter stands and less root penetration.
The key takeaway according to Peterson is to “be mindful of the year you’re in and the best method to get something established.”
Aerial application of oats, radish, annual ryegrass flown on September 26th in central Illinois (photo taken October 10).
Cover crop flown on the second week of September in south central Illinois. Notice the substantial growth of radishes in the areas of the field where there was no corn growth. (photos taken November 7)