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He plants his cover in 15-in. rows, alternating between peas and radishes, with cereal rye or hairy vetch to provide a green cover through spring. The cover crops cost $14-35/acre to plant, depending upon the multi-species mix.
“We want the ground to have a green cover so that we don’t lose the nutrients that are available from these covers and holding the soil.”
His inputs for corn, including seed, are $135/acre for fields that have been in this cycle for more than five years, Brandt says.
“Radishes become my mini-storage tanks. At 2 lbs./acre, these radishes store 225 lbs. N, 23 lbs. P and 210 lbs. potassium. That’s what we found in the soil around these radishes when they decompose.”
Although the no-till, continuous living-cover system has passionate adherents, Jerry Hatfield, ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment laboratory director, says it’s hard to get past many growers’ short-term focus.
North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown didn’t have a long-term view when he happened upon the ECO system 15 years ago. Instead, he says, four years of failed harvests because of drought and hail forced him to change the way he farmed because he couldn’t get a loan to cover input costs on the 2,000 acres he farms near Bismarck.
“I needed to find an alternative,” he says. “I tried cover crops and realized then that it’s all about soil health. We’ve totally eliminated (the need for) commercial fertility in the land we have in the system. The soil itself provides the nutrients that are needed for a cash crop.”
By concentrating on soil health, the organic matter on his land has increased from 1-2% to a little more than 4%. The ECO farming system enables Brown to grow corn for $1.51/bu., he says.
In addition to being no-till, Brown uses cover-crop cocktails to return carbon to the soil. He also runs cattle on some of his cropland in the winter months. They consume about a third of the cover crop and trample the rest of it into the ground where it is consumed by soil microorganisms.
For growers considering a move to ECO farming, Brown says, “The first three years are the hardest, but once you see the benefits, you won’t go back.”
The system is not without its growing pains, Hoorman agrees. Conventional-tillage growers – and even some no-till farmers – will need to forgo some short-term profits in order to get long-term profits,” he says. “But once it is established, the system makes the soil very, very efficient.”
Hoorman recommends that farmers first tile and level their fields. They also need to concentrate on establishing the soil microbes before cutting back on inputs.
“Once you get the drainage in, the field level and the pH up and the system started,” he says. “we’re finding you don’t have to mess with the system much.”
Celina, OH, farmer Jeff Rasawehr, who’s moved land into the ECO farming system for the past three to five years, agrees. “We’ve had a few kinks,” he says, “but they are kinks, not roadblocks.”
He farms nearly 2,500 acres and estimates his land is $200/acre more profitable than his counterparts in a conventional-tillage system. This profit comes from lower inputs and more efficient use of water and nutrients, which improves his yields.
“Evidence is suggesting that you put about 2 in. or more of accessible water in the soil,” he added. “This year when we got the dry periods, the further my farms were into an ECO farming system, the better they looked.”
“You can put an economic value on that,” Hoorman adds.