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Cover Crops

Published: Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 11:42 a.m. CST

Have you noticed a that few fields of corn and soybean stubble are turning green, like in the spring?  Have you also seen crop-dusting airplanes busy working like bees on non-harvested fields around the first of September?  What the heck is going on?

While buying squirrel corn from my farmer friend, Roger Harrington, of Ollie, Iowa, I noticed these large, dark, plastic containers stacked neatly beside his driveway.  When I asked Roger what they were, he gave me a quizzical look.  “Cover crop seed,” he said, like I should know.

When I asked him what a cover crop was, he sighed, pushed his cap back on his forehead, leaned back against a stack of the containers, and proceeded to educate this one-time-farm-boy-turned-city-slicker about cover crops.  Roger farms about 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa on the rolling farm ground of Keokuk County.  He has a degree in agronomy and ag ed from Iowa State University, taught Voc Ag for a couple of years, and is one of the most progressive farmers I know.  For example, he has been practicing no-till farming since the 1980s—that means no plowing, no disking, and no ripping.  In addition to crop farming, he is also a dealer in wild-bird seed, corn and soybean seed, and now, cover-crop seed.  On his home place is a beautiful pond full of ducks and geese.  The pond has an island where geese nest.  A herd of white goats dot the landscape, and beef cattle graze nearby.

If there’s one thing Roger despises, it’s soil erosion.  A second thing is fertilizer runoff.  For the last five years, Roger has been aerial sowing cover-crop seed onto standing corn and soybean fields.  He uses rye grass, cereal rye, crimson clover, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, sunn hemp, tillage radishes, turnip, and rape seed—sometimes by themselves, sometimes in mixtures (cocktails).  Roger often acts as a consultant or adviser to farmers interested in cover crops.  About 10 percent of farmers are now using cover crops, and interest is growing.

After sowing, the cover crop begins to grow almost immediately, and continues to grow while the corn or soybeans are harvested, and on through the winter and spring.  The cover crop can actually be used for grazing.  Most importantly, what the cover crop is doing is preventing soil erosion through the cold, windy, winter months, and rainy spring weather.  Secondly, it is establishing a root base into what would otherwise be dead soil.  This root base helps break up hard-packed soil, reestablishes a culture where earthworms and other  organisms thrive, and provides decomposing matter that will feed the upcoming crop of corn or soybeans.  Thirdly, the cover crop is scavenging unused nutrients in the soil that might otherwise runoff into the groundwater.  Crops of corn or soybeans are much better prepared to survive a drought if a cover crop is used.  Also, and this is a big plus, less fertilizer is required in the spring.

Some of the cover-crop plants are legumes, which fix nitrogen into the soil, therefore requiring less purchased nitrogen for fertilizer.  Also, some cover-crop plants have allelopathic qualities that inhibit germination and growth of weed seeds. 

Cost? Aerial application runs about $13 an acre, and cover-crop seed about $18 an acre.  Compared to the cost of tilling, cover-crop technology is less expensive.  Throw in the benefits to the environment, and it’s a win-win situation — for the farmer and the future.

As Roger points out, “Sometimes, it’s just about doing the right thing.”

• • •

Have a good story?  Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com, or visit his website at www.empty-news-words-photos-and-frames.com.

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