If you think cover crops are for smaller operators only, don't tell Mark Anson and Lanny Greenhalgh. Anson sees them as an integral part of his family's 20,000-acre farming operation. For Greenhalgh, who farms several thousand acres near Guide Rock, Neb., cover crops build soil, retain moisture for higher yields and allow custom grazing.
Adding cover crops to any crop production program introduces new complications. The larger the operation, the larger the complications, such as when seeding cover crops and harvest labor needs clash.
Anson Farms includes Mark's brothers Mike, Douglas and Dan, as well as eight members of the next generation, yet labor is still tight with multiple five-person combine crews.
"We've had to find ways to plant cover crops at the same time," says Anson. "It's been a steep learning curve."
The learning curve started in 2009 when Anson attended a countywide informational meeting on cover crops. By fall 2010, the family agreed to try the idea, seeding 1,200 acres of highly erodible ground to wheat cleanings and some cereal rye. A pass with a weasel rotary harrow encouraged soil to seed contact. Reduced erosion and improved planting conditions the next spring convinced them to double (cover crop) acreage that fall.
Logistics made expansion significantly harder. Anson Farms operates in four counties in Indiana and three in Illinois, with 100 miles to the farthest farm. While their largest fields are around 150 acres, their average field size is only 23 acres.
Anson Farms operates in four counties in Indiana and three in Illinois, with 100 miles to the farthest farm and no field larger than 30 acres In 2011 they contracted with local retailers to spread seed mixed with fall fertilizer on 2,500 acres and again used the rotary harrow.
"We had some failures and some successes," says Anson. "We learned how to handle the seed, weigh it out and mix it. Some can be spread with a spinner, and some can't."
Sourcing the seed himself, Anson quickly learned that some sellers sell by the pound and some by the bushel. Using 50-lb. bags was out of the question. Totes could be ordered by pallet, but had to be shrink-wrapped to hold them in place. Weight per volume varied by type of seed and how well it was cleaned. With seeding by pounds per acre, amounts had to be converted and mixing rates adjusted, complicating record keeping even more.
This past fall Anson Farms planned to seed 5,000 acres, but doubled that amount when the dismal harvest freed up labor. Local cereal rye, annual rye, oats, radish and crimson clover were seeded alone or in mixes. Several retailers were used with a variety of equipment. In addition, the Ansons used their John Deere 30-ft. no-till drill on 750 acres of reclaimed coalmine ground.
To meet next year's goal of 12,000 acres, Anson plans to use multiple retailers to seed upland fields while still using a rotary harrow to improve seed to soil contact and will continue with no-till air drill on upland acres that are on the reclaimed coal acres and several types of planters on flat land and river bottoms. Up to 40% of targeted acres will likely be seeded by plane. Multiple test strips with no cover crops will be left for yield evaluation.
Along the way, both generations have caught the cover crop fever, learning to manage equipment, labor and seed handling. Adjustments continue to be made. Several students with farm backgrounds at nearby Vincennes University were drafted to run equipment this past fall, and more will be hired this coming fall. The rotary harrow will likely be replaced by another, lower maintenance, tillage tool.
Progress has been swift, but not always smooth. Anson notes that two of his brothers continued to drag their feet until this fall while tiling fields that had been planted to cover crops. "They saw 8-12-in. deep cereal rye roots and radish, both with earthworms under them, and they know this is good for the soil," says Anson.
That experience capped earlier findings. NRCS technicians with laser thermometers demonstrated that fields seeded to cover crops in 2009 were 35 degrees cooler and still growing when those on bare land were rolling up from last summer's heat. This fall, soil tests indicated higher P and K levels in fields cover cropped for two years versus conventional fields.
"We don't understand everything that is happening, but we are all fired up about it," says Anson.
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."