What is in this article?:
- Size is No Excuse | Large Farmers Make Cover Crops Work
- Expanding cover crops
At 55, Mark Anson was ready to quit farming...and then he heard about cover crops. "The concept changed my life," he says. "We were successful and profitable, but we were farming dirt that was like a parking lot, not healthy or alive."
Anson admits cover crops had little economic impact this year, given the drought. However, they continue to have a major impact on the soil and his attitude. "Our soils need this protection, and we're having a huge impact on water quality and soil nutrients," he says. "There is something about looking across these fields and seeing the green cover. I can't point to a bunch of financial information that says this is the way to do it, but I haven't been this excited about farming since I was in my 20s."
Expanding cover crops
Greenhalgh is also fired up about cover crops. He expanded from 400 acres in fall of 2010 to 1,000 acres in 2011. Although he dropped back to 750 acres in 2012, he expects that number to increase significantly in years to come. He also plans to add cover crop seed production to his current corn/soybean/wheat rotation on dry land and corn/soybean rotation on irrigated acres.
"Eventually, I plan to have a cover crop on every acre, every year," says Greenhalgh.
The soil health benefits of cover crops, including adding organic matter, might be enough for him. However, even in a drought, the economic benefits are not to be ignored. A field planted to soybeans following a cover crop yielded more than 35 bu./a. this fall, while a conventional neighboring field barely yielded anything. In another case, Greenhalgh compared a field that was double cropped with soybeans following winter wheat with one half a mile away planted to a cocktail mix of cover crops. While the soybeans yielded 30 bu./acre, the cover crop provided 70-cow days/acre (the number of cows/acre for a single day) grazing. Both fields were planted to corn in the spring of 2012. Though the cover crop may have used moisture the corn could have used early in the season, by August, both fields were drying up. Greenhalgh applied for a yield estimate from his insurance adjuster so he could turn cattle into the fields.
"The double-crop field was estimated at 2.6 bu./acre, while the cover crop field was estimated at 97 bu./acre," says Greenhalgh. " I won't double crop again. I'll plant cover crops, and if the demand is there, graze them, leaving the nutrients and more moisture for the next year's corn crop. In the meantime, I expect to harvest $400 an acre in grazing value doing custom grazing on cover crop acres this winter."
Greenhalgh is an early adopter of cover crops in his area, as his father Robert was with no-till eco-fallow in the 1980s. "Most people no-till here now, but they didn't then," says Greenhalgh. "Could the same be true for cover crops in 10 years?"
Time, labor and equipment management are Greenhalgh's biggest challenges when it comes to cover crops. His father and his father-in-law Frank Washburn help at harvest, and he seeds most of his cover crops with his John Deere 1890 no-till air seeder. He has also used an aerial applicator to seed standing irrigated soybeans with turnip seed late in the season and then watered them in. However, he is less concerned with how a cover crop is seeded than if it is seeded.
"Cover crops don't require the precision a cash crop requires," says Greenhalgh. "If you don't have the time, consider hiring it done. Cover crops use moisture that would likely evaporate, percolate or run off between cash crops. They add organic matter and can be grazed, adding manure and urine. The added organic matter increases water-holding capacity for the coming crop. It's a win-win-win."