Joe Breker needs his own tee shirt that reads “No Tillage, More Plants” or “Cover Crops Are Good Risk Management.” The North Dakota farmer thinks the tandem of no-till farming and the use of cover crops are key to making farmers more resilient in good times and bad, deluge or drought.
That’s because National Corn Growers Association’s 2017 Good Steward Recognition Recipient has spent four decades working to make his farm more sustainable and he has seen the conservation and business benefits of protecting and enriching the soil with cover crops, especially when mother nature provides too little or too much rain.
“If you already have established cover crops in a wet spring as we’ve had, it protects the soil from erosion and in some cases can get you in the field faster. That’s important when getting planting done is a challenge,” Breker said. “Sure, some fields are just too wet but cover crops generally improve your chances for success in most years.”
And Breker is not alone. A new report Cover Crop Economics from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education says farmers around the country are planting cover crops on millions of acres. He says that’s because cover crops lead to healthier, more productive soil, adds biomass, sequesters greenhouse gases like carbon and improves nutrient cycling.
The report is timely, as the latest Census of Agriculture revealed that national cover crop acreage increased by 50 percent from 2012 to 2017. It’s also timely due to the interest in cover crops for planting on fields that were flooded or otherwise unplanted (prevent plant situations) this spring, in order to suppress weeds while protecting and improving the soil.
Prevent Plant is a perfect opportunity for farmers to try cover crops, he says, both to get the experience and because soil suffers biologically without something growing on it. “Roots are critical for soil to be healthy and the worst possible scenario is to use tillage to keep weeds down.”
“From the management side, we want to control the weeds. That will have to be done before putting the cover crop out. But once established cover crops help with longer-term weed control as well as helping to salvage nitrogen,” said Jim Isermann, field manager for the Soil Health Partnership. “If you applied nitrogen in the fall or spring, and didn’t get a corn crop out there, planting a cover crop makes great sense to save fertility for environmental and economic reasons.”
Having this kind of motivation to introduce cover crops is also important to your commitment level and your success, Breker says. If you have challenges like weeds, fertility, erosion or compaction you are more likely to stay the course. You’re also more likely to see the faster agronomic and financial payback.
Isermann notes it is critical to do your homework first because one-size does not fit all when tackling cover crops. Ask yourself; when can you plant? What seed is available? What herbicides are already applied? And use local, reputable sources to make sure you get it right. One good online resource he suggests is the Midwest Cover Crops Council because it is state specific and has a cover crop selector tool with links to more information.