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Cover crop lessons from four Midwest farmers

At the Soil Management Summit in Mankato, Minnesota, farmers shared their mistakes and successes planting cover crops on their farms.

Take these lessons learned to help strategize your cover crop management in 2022.

Joe Breker, North Dakota

Breker farms in the southeastern part of North Dakota, in the shadow of the Dakota Prairie) with his daughter Olivia and her husband.

“I started experimenting with cover cropping 22 years ago and I’ve been no-tilling for 42 years,” he says.

Breker is a soil health advocate but is quick to say that healthy soil doesn’t happen by accident and that you can’t till your way to soil health.

Over the years, Breker has experimented with cover crop varieites, methods of applications, and crop rotations to find out what works for his soil and weather conditions. It takes time and a willingness to learn.

He integrates new soil health practices often, like grazing cows on bio strips. While he doesn’t have cattle on his farm anymore, he has access to neighbors’ and it’s a win-win.

“How do you make one plus one equal three with cover crops?” he asks. “Grazing cattle on cover crops. It’s amazing what they can do with thigh-high covers and it keeps them happy.”

Dean Sponheim, Iowa

Sponheim farms in north-central Iowa on land that is typically worked excessively.

He had strip-tilled his farm for over 20 years before making the transition to no-till and adding in cover crops. His goal, by the time he’s done farming, is to eliminate herbicides and he plans to do so with his cover crops and no-till strategies.

“I’m not an expert, but the first thing I’ll tell anyone starting from a full-width tillage system and is interested in no-till and cover crops is to plan a transition,” he says. “If you’re going to work with cover crops, you need to change your tillage practices to begin.”

Sponheim says his preferred method of applying cover crops is aerial but that it isn’t necessary to have high-dollar equipment to get started. The first year he had planted cereal rye on his farm, he used a 1983 800 cycle planter.

“When I used to drive through the neighborhood and see fields with worked ground that was totally black with even green rows, I thought it was beautiful. Now I think something is wrong with those fields. To me, no-till and cover cropped fields are beautiful.” 

A field of harvested corn has been covered in its cover crop, radishes
Photo Credit: NRCS

Martin Larsen, Minnesota

Larsen is a fifth-generation Minnesota farmer and technician with the Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District.

In his region of Minnesota, the land is 25 feet or less of soil over soluble bedrock, which leads to groundwater problems with nitrates, bacteria, and sediment.

His goals for the farm include: profitability in order to hand the farm down to his son, increase sustainability, conservation stewardship, nitrate and carbon sequestration, and diversification.

“I would recommend to anyone who wants to get into cover cropping to start with cereal rye,” Larsen says. “But that one method, winter rye, probably isn’t going to cover the number of acres you want on the farm.”

Larsen built this own interseeder and says it’s important to look into how to seed. “There are as many different ways to do it as there are people.”

He points out, though, how important it is to take into account the environment and weather in order to ensure success and manage expectations.

For example, in this past year, he did not interseed rye because there wasn’t enough rainfall.

“Management also means deciding when not to do something,” he says. “I’m interested in spending money and getting a benefit.”

Cover crops interseeded into corn.
Kacey Birchmier

Doug Bos, Minnesota

Bos has been applying cover crops on his Luverne, Minnesota farm for the past five years and has been no-tilling soybeans for 35.

Bos is also the Assistant Director at Rock County Soil and Water Conservation District and an advocate for cover crops

As Bos explains, it isn’t always easy to get started with cover crops. In his second year, he planted green with a mix of cereal rye, canola, and radish on hilly ground that had been corn-on-corn for about 30 years.

“At that time, I panicked because the weather was cool and wet and I wasn’t sure I could terminate it with chemicals,” he says. “So what did I do? I field cultivated it. And then my seed bed was not good. I planted 32,000 and when I did my seed count, I didn’t even make 24,000.”

Mistakes like this and a late season application to control waterhemp, which affected his cover crop the following season, turn out to be the best teachers, he says.

His lessons learned:

  1. Have a Plan A, B, and C. “Everyone’s situation is different and that’s why it’s hard to be prescriptive.”
  2. Be flexible. “You have to look at weather changes and adapt your plan.”
  3. Ask questions to those already planting cover crops. “Ask what other farmers are doing for herbicide, seed, and seeding methods.”
  4. Make your agronomist earn their money. “Especially for herbicide and seed selection, it’s really important to have your agronomist on board for your success.”
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