From seed to soil, cover crops amplify the benefits to the farm
Cover crops have seized the spotlight. After an active year in 2021, where input prices soared, carbon programs multiplied, and millions of dollars were invested in climate-smart practices, the surge of interest in cover crops isn’t subsiding soon.
With the spotlight come rumors of seed shortages and hype around potential profit boosters such as growing your own seed to sell. How do you sort through the noise and find which cover crop strategy is right for your farm?
Three experts dig in and share their tips for overcoming hesitancy and strategizing a cover crop system so you can capitalize on the current industry momentum.
State of the Seed
A large percentage of cover crop seed is sourced out of the Pacific Northwest, in particular the smaller seeds including radish, turnip, clover, rapeseed, and annual ryegrass. Seed for winter rye, oats, triticale, and wheat are often sourced from growers in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Canada.
- READ MORE: Strategize cover crops like cash crops
Distributors, such as La Crosse Seed in Wisconsin, work with ag retailers to get quality seed into planters and work to develop the plans that help ensure successful adoption on the farm.
Brandon Van Middendorp, regional sales manager and cover crop lead for La Crosse Seed, says, “In 2012, 10 million acres were planted to cover crops. That’s grown to over 15 million acres in this last year.”
He attributes this growth to improved commodity markets and the new, developing carbon marketplaces serving as revenue sources for farmers to sequester carbon.
“The potential for cost-share programs through the Natural Resources Conservation Service or private entities is only going to get better,” he says. “The feasibility and likelihood of farmers adopting cover crops will only keep growing.”
If the momentum comes to fruition and the often-projected 30 million to 40 million acres of farmland are planted with cover crops by 2030, Van Middendorp says an increase in seed production would be required.
“That strain could be very real if it happens much sooner and quicker than we anticipate,” he says. “We have already been hearing from this past summer through early 2022 there are supply concerns due to drought and poor growing conditions from the Pacific Northwest and into Canada.”
There will be less inventory of radishes, crimson clover, and other species planted in the region until seed production begins again. Van Middendorp says with around 50 to 70 species on the market, substitutions can be made to get a cover crop in the ground.
His advice is for farmers to navigate the landscape of cover crops:
- Plan early. Cover crops should be part of a holistic approach. When developing your seed, herbicide, and fertility programs, plan for cover crops at the same time.
- Take into account your crop management throughout the year, from spring to fall.
- For a first-time cover crop farmer, start small. It isn’t one-size-fits-all when it comes to cover crops, so experiment with different species and utilize the results to develop a plan that matches the farm’s goals.
Cereal rye cover crop.
Covers on the Farm
Getting familiar with the supply chain and available resources is just one piece of the puzzle. Understanding the agronomic benefits, especially those that convert to immediate financial benefits, is another.
“Cover crops are the ultimate slow-release fertilizer,” Ruth McCabe, conservation agronomist at Heartland Co-op, says. “If at the end of the year, your cash crop didn’t soak up all the nutrients, especially water-soluble nitrate, you could hold onto 20 to 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre just by growing a cover crop.”
- LISTEN: Manure and cover crops
The savings vary by operation, but those nutrients and others such as phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and sulfur, might otherwise be lost to water or wind erosion.
“The other thing that makes you money on the farm is your topsoil,” she says. “If that is getting washed down the creek, you are losing money long term.”
A cover crop like rye, with a dense mass, can hold onto your soil. Cover crops provide other intrinsic benefits to the ecosystem: improved soil structure and health, improved microbial populations, and potential carbon sequestration. These, though, take several years to kick in.
With increasing demand, it may be tempting to consider growing cover crop seed to sell. McCabe says unrealistic expectations exist regarding this strategy.
“The best bang for your buck may be growing cover crop seed just for you,” McCabe says.
If you do this, you can still qualify for cost-share programs if the seed has been tested for germination and purity percentage (lack of noxious weeds). Check with your state Natural Resources Conservation Service to ensure you follow the right guidelines. There is added value because of the agronomic and soil health benefits, but farmers can’t be compensated through cost-share on the acres harvested for seed. If you have a buyer lined up and the ability to get the seed cleaned and processed, growing extra seed could be right for you.
Be aware of the climate conditions in your region that might present challenges to its growth, such as high humidity and higher risk of fungus problems.
For your own use, the need to clean the seed depends upon the species and application method. If you plan to broadcast, seed doesn’t need to be cleaned other than to remove weed seeds. If using machinery with more precision, like a drill or air seeder, ensure the seed is clean to avoid problems in the equipment.
McCabe’s recommendations for planting cover crops on the farm:
- Cereal rye is easy to find and cheap. Plus, no matter where you are, it should grow — even in poor soil and cold weather.
- If you’re just starting out with cover crops, and it’s a corn year, plant cereal rye before soybeans. On the chance that the following spring is wet and you’re unable to terminate the rye on time, the soybeans will continue to grow just fine.
- If it’s a soybean year and you’ll be going into corn, put oats down in the fall as early as possible so they will have growth before dying in the winter.
- Legumes such as crimson clover are great options, but be aware they must be planted early. If not, they won’t have enough growth to provide value, and your money will be wasted.
- Take soil tests and calculate the return on investment for all inputs on your fields. Even if you’ve been growing cover crops for years, the soil test data will confirm whether you can consider cutting back on fertilizer.
This Oakland rye crop grew 2 inches in just three weeks in December and through snow cover on the field.
North Carolina farmer Russell Hedrick didn’t have cover crops on his radar until he stepped into his local NRCS office with an interest in learning how to address erosion and weed issues on his farm. Until the early 2000s, the land Hedrick farms was big tobacco and cotton country under conventional tillage. The soils were degraded and water infiltration was a measly half-inch per hour.
“The old saying in North Carolina is we’re about 10 days away from a drought,” Hedrick says. “So having a higher organic matter and water availability limits the amount of overall stress on the farm.”
That day in the NRCS office, Lee Holcomb, assistant state conservationist, overheard Hedrick’s conversation, popped out of his office, and asked, “Can I tell you about cover crops?”
Upon Holcomb’s counsel, Hedrick began a whole systems approach with cover crops to improve the farmland. Hedrick plants what he calls a “home run mix” of cereal rye, triticale, oats, crimson clover, winter peas, vetch, and rapeseed. The small grains have varying carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, supplying nutrients to the cash crop at both the beginning and end of the growing season.
In 2021, Hedrick focused on the corn and soybean management. He takes biomass samples, multiple soil health tests, and leaves “check strips,” or land without covers, that provide a visual indicator of what the fields would look like without all of the soil health practices.
He integrates livestock where possible, having seen the benefits of manure returned to the soil through grazing. The soil health practices contribute to his goal of farming for profit, not yield. He’s seen the benefits to the bottom line by gaining nitrogen credits from legume cover crops, reducing herbicide spraying, saving on chemicals, and reducing fertilizer applications.
“Our water infiltration has improved to about 5 to 10 inches an hour,” he says. “When we first started, the soil was orange. Now it looks almost like chocolate cake.”
Nebraska farmer John Meier plants cereal rye and hairy vetch.
Cover Crop Funding
The USDA has amped up investments in conservation funding this year, putting into action ways to address climate change and provide opportunities for farmers to successfully adopt climate-smart practices.
One of the newest programs is Farmers for Soil Health, an initiative started by the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Pork Board.
The initiative gives incentives for farmers to increase the number of cover crops on corn and soybean acres.
In addition, a $38 million Cover Crop Initiative will be rolled out to 11 states: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota.
Cover Crop Tips
Mariah Murphy is the senior manager of member-owner engagement and leads the field team at Truterra.
Having worked in co-ops for most of her career, Murphy’s cover crop advice is grounded in practicality and strategy.
- Plan out your crop rotation. This important step will identify the species yielding the greatest benefits.
- Get outside of your box. Don’t jump into a 15-way mix right away, but expand your mind-set and be open to trying a mix that could give you the most success. More advanced, progressive farmers look at ways to build soil health with multispecies mixes.
- Figure out what success looks like for you.With cover crops, your goals could be to reduce herbicide costs and weed pressure, to enroll in a carbon program, and to reduce water runoff.
- Manage risk and work with trusted advisers. The Truterra sustainability tool is unique because it can provide the pros and cons of cover crops before they are implemented. With available profit insights, you can make an informed decision as it relates to your return on investment and get support through the process with a local retailer.