Dave Rodibaugh wants more from his cover crops. In addition to seeking advice from his local Extension officers or seed company representatives, he talks to neighbors.
Rodibaugh, who farms a little more than 2,000 acres in Renssalaer, Ind., is one of a dozen farmers participating in an informal peer group organized by Dan Perkins, Jasper County Soil & Water Conservation District program specialist. The growers meet regularly to discuss farm-related topics, examine new ideas and talk about what works and what doesn’t on their farms.
“I’m still looking for the economic benefit with cover crops,” says Rodibaugh, a longtime no-till farmer who added a cover crop mix of clover, radishes, cereal rye and annual rye to his operation three years ago. “I want it to be sustainable and not depend on government money to make it work.”
A couple of farmers in the group have seen the economic benefit, and have increased their use of cover crops as a result.
“It shows that someone can do it rather than someone telling me it can be done,” he says. “That alone spurs me to keep trying.”
Formalized coffee-shop group
The group is more formal than a coffee shop group, with organized discussion topics and guest speakers. Perkins organized the group in northwest Indiana in January 2011 with the goal of increasing no-till acres and cover-crop use in Indiana.
Meetings are primarily during the winter months and are a mix of formal discussion and informal conversation, which allow members to build relationships while gaining and sharing information. Most members of the group practice no-till, but Perkin said several long-time conventional tillers come to meetings to learn more about how no-till works in their county.
“The guys like each other and trust each other. I know they talk to each other outside of our meetings,” says Perkins, who organizes meetings, researches topics and lines up speakers.
One supporter of the peer group meetings in Indiana is Hans Kok, coordinator of the IndianaConservation Cropping Systems Initiative, who ran similar peer groups when he was an Extension officer in Idaho. He says the groups work because “farmers really trust farmers more than anyone else. “The whole strength of these groups is that they are self-selecting,” he says. “The ones we had in Idaho and Washington were simply amazing. We had farmers drive three hours over slippery roads to get to a 7 a.m. meeting. The worse the weather was, the more people would show up.”
In Idaho, the groups formed to get like-minded farmers together, he says, particularly direct seeders. The farmers were often new to no-till and didn’t want to make the same mistakes that others had. But the positive benefits quickly became more than just agronomic.
A core group of 30-40 farmers would come to the meetings. As word spread, local bankers started showing up and often bought breakfast for the group. “The bankers began to understand the agronomics of no-till and realized these guys were much lower risks for loans than the conventional guys. That was one of the most important spin-offs we had,” Kok says.
“Local information is much more powerful than generic information. That is the strength of these groups. Local farmers, local soils.”
Value of vertical tillage
Mark Kingma, Perkins’ neighbor, started attending meetings about the same time he decided to use cover crops to rebuild the soil organic matter on his farm. He also experiments with vertical tillage to improve corn-on-corn yields.
“Everybody is using cover crops in areas where they’re trying to affect some change,” says Kingma, who farms about 2,700 acres in Jasper County. “We all share what works, successes we’ve had, and how that compares to what’s recommended. The information we’re getting is pretty good.”
He says he attends the meetings to get ideas, but mostly the conversations confirm his current practices. “What’s interesting, is (most of the group) is moving from tillage to no-till through vertical tillage. We’re going the other way. We’re doing vertical tillage because we want to make no-till corn-on-corn work more effectively in our soil.”
But the group can’t help with all his problems. “With farming, all the information you get is still dependent on the weather,” he says with a laugh.