A recent article in the Farm Journal magazine, “Cover Crop Bandwagon Frustrates Farmers” has been met with a good dose of rebuttals- and deservedly so.
Above: Interseeding cover crops into knee-high corn has been successful in northern Iowa
I can appreciate those who want to make cover crops work, but that attitude is not near enough!
It's true -- cover crops won't work in your standard Iowa corn/bean rotation. Making cover crops pay has more to do with rearranging the picture than finding the missing puzzle piece. It cannot be denied there are hundreds of farmers in Iowa who are making them work! I do agree with the observation that some, including well meaning farmers, are “blindly promoting cover crops”. As with any new movement, it takes time to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Cover cropping is a simple concept, but VERY complex to be successful.
Based on the examples mentioned in the article, some fundamental cover crop rules were indeed doomed to fail. Planting Tillage Radishes in October is like planting corn the last week of June- of course it will fail in Iowa! Even with a timely planting of cover crops, they sometimes fail as well- just like our cash crops do once in a while. Does that mean we don’t plant corn because we had an abnormally wet spring?
To their credit, after 150 years of growing corn and beans, Iowa farmers have gotten really good at it. Cover crops benefits have only started to catch on in the last decade or so- we’re just in kindergarten. If we’d rate corn and bean production based on a decade of experience it’d be with pathetic results compared to today’s model. There are some very compelling strategies beginning to emerge with the cover crop concept that will work in Iowa. Hundreds of thousands of acres of cover crops are successfully grown in areas even further north than Iowa.
Everyone wants a cover crop recipe, but that’s not the most important aspect on the road to making cover crops pay. Start with identifying what you want to accomplish. Then look at your planting window. Try to widen that planting window by interseeding cover crops when the corn is knee high. Plant 10% of your acres in shorter season beans or corn- there are some pretty good short season genetics available now, even for northern areas. Seed corn fields are a no-brainer to make cover crops work as there are plenty of growing degrees days after harvest. Be open to plant a field of small grain- even if it’s just cereal rye to sell to the neighbors who wants to buy cover crop seed! This field can then be planted into a multispecies legume mix that could set you up for little to no nitrogen needs the following year- a tremendous cost savings and sure to score some points with the environmental groups!
"Making cover crops pay has more to do with rearranging the picture than finding the missing puzzle piece."
But you need to be willing to strategically try a new practice- if you think it will fail or you don’t “follow the rules”, it probably will fail. Approach cover cropping like you do your cash crops. Plant them the first day you have opportunity. Keep learning by going to meetings and field days. Understand the risks and don’t be afraid to fail- at least in a small way. Adapt cover crop concepts to your farm just like you have evolved with your cash cropping system.
Finally, and maybe the most important secret to success is to have a mentor who is already doing what you want to accomplish. If you treat your cover crops like your cash crops you are well on your way to cover crop success- even in Iowa!
You need to understand where the future is going. Wrangler Jeans is asking their cotton farmers to use cover crops. Tyson Food just announced they are encouraging the farmers who grow the 2 million acres of corn they need for feeding their animals and birds to use cover crops. Many other corporate ag and food related companies are jumping onto the “cover crop bandwagon”. Are Cargill and ADM far behind? I believe farmers currently frustrated with cover crops will figure it out if a market incentive continues to develop and emerge.
I would suggest Farm Journal do a story featuring respected farmers in Iowa who are totally committed to cover crops and making them work, like Steve Berger, Loran Steinlage Tim Recker, Chris Teachout, and many other farmers all over the state. Former Iowa Secretary of Ag Bill Northey, his successor and it seems like all the candidates in the current race for that position all have strong cover crop positions. And of course, the Practical Farmers of Iowa who have a long history of cover crop research. The Iowa Soybean Association has quite a bit of useful cover crop data as well. Numerous cover crop seed companies have a strong presence in Iowa and can give practical advice on cover crop options. Are these folks stupid or are they onto something?
Steve Groff, The Cover Crop Coach
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