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Four Creative Ways Soil Health Pays

From better food to fertilizer efficiency, get more for your dollar with cover crops and reduced tillage.

Despite a lackluster farm economy, interest in cover crops and soil health continues to soar. In the western Corn Belt, some farmers who adopt cover crops as part of their crop rotation are seeing decreased herbicide costs, improvement in nutrient efficiency, and better cash crop yields. Plus, the cover crops add diversity to otherwise predictable crop rotations.

Farmers at a Soil Health Field Day near Yoder, Kansas, on August 21 shared some of the top tricks they’ve learned over years of using cover crops in their rotations.

1. Companion Crops Outcompete Weeds 

Before the plow turned the Kansas sod over and fields were cultivated, the prairie was covered in a mix of plant species. It stands to reason that Mother Nature wants the soil covered, says Chad Basinger, who farms near Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Basinger tries to keep living roots in the soil at all times. Even after wheat harvest, the Pretty Prairie, Kansas, farmer has planted a mix of grain sorghum (for cash) with cover crops (to boost soil biology and keep weeds from establishing). “We don’t want to leave any gaps in the system,” says Basinger, who, after wheat harvest in June, applied a burndown herbicide to kill weeds growing in the wheat stubble. He followed with a mix of legumes and flowering plants between the sorghum rows to cover the field. He estimates the break-even yield for grain sorghum to be 21 bushels per acre. On wheat stubble ground left open, Basinger has already sprayed two to three times to kill summer flushes of marestail and pigweeds, and he’ll likely have to spray at least once before planting wheat in the fall.  

2. Diverse Income Opportunities 

Grazing cattle on cover crop mixes is a great way to turn living plant tissue into fertilizer and boost soil microbial activity. Derek Zongker, a farmer-stockman from near Sylvia, Kansas, says, “There is something about cattle and the way they utilize that forage, and turn it back into residual cover that goes back into your soil,” he explains. Plus, adding cattle helps offset the cost of cover crops, adds Haven, Kansas, producer Jeff Brawner. “Everyone knows [grazing] is great for soil health, but we were looking for other avenues to bring more diversity and profitability to the overall cash grain side. The biggest offset is not having to pay for seed.”

Cover crop practitioners who don’t have livestock can find graziers looking for a feed source. Stocker cattle weighing 500 to 600 pounds should be able to add at least 2 pounds of gain per day on a diverse cover crop mix. Field Day participants said the value of feeding cattle should be about 50¢ per pound, more or less depending upon who takes care of water and fence around the cover crop field.  

3. Improvements to Food

Pennsylvania farmer Steve Groff and Kansas farmer Keith Thompson agree that farmers are likely to have great opportunities marketing nutrient-dense food coming from healthier soils. Thompson cites research that estimates in the last 60 years, nutrient density in food grown worldwide has decreased 30%. Groff has data that shows butternut squash grown on his farm exceeds USDA standards for nutrition of that crop. He attributes the nutrient-packed vegetable to years of effort building soil health on his farm. While most Midwest farmers are not growing crops for direct food consumption, Groff finds that more food and fiber companies are seeking commodities grown under “sustainable practices.” ADM, Cargill, Wrangler Jeans, Tyson Foods, and Land O’Lakes all are procuring farm goods that encourage soil health practices.

“It would be nice to get paid for more nutrient-dense food. We should be growing the best food we can anyway as farmers,” Thompson says.

4. More Bang for your Fertilizer Buck 

Remember our example of the Kansas prairie before it was plowed the first time? The soil was covered with a mix of plant species, each of which thrived, working together. It’s not an easy phenomenon to explain, but farmers who plant cover crop mixes including legumes, grasses, and brassicas tend to see visible differences in their crop health. “I’ve done thousands of test plots with cover crops over the last 15 years. What I’ve noticed is when we mix legumes with grasses the grasses grow better, and the legumes grow better,” Groff says. “When you start adding more, the biology ramps up. It’s a situation where one plus one equals three.”

Thompson agrees. “The lowdown is we’re looking for a way to lower inputs and be more profitable. You used to have to go buy stuff. Now you just have to figure out how to leverage this idea toward more profitability. That’s what’s exciting.”

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