The King of Cover Cropping

An Indiana initiative has made the state a national leader in getting continuous living cover established on crop acres. Can it change the way farmers view soil?

Michael Werling is, literally, a card-carrying connoisseur of soil health.

“I call it, ‘My ticket to a farm tour,’ ” says the northeastern Indiana crop producer, showing off his business card. The words on the “ticket” leave little doubt what is in store for the lucky holder who chooses to redeem it. Headings at the top say, “My soil is not dirt” and, “My residue is not trash.” A third bold line of script across the middle reads, “For Healthier Soil and Cleaner Water Cover Crop Your Assets and ‘NEVER TILL.’ ” Buried at the bottom as a bit of an afterthought is Werling’s contact information. Given his excitement over the world beneath his feet and how to protect and improve it, maybe it makes sense the farmer’s card relegates his address and phone number to footnote status—soil is his identity.

Spend enough time on a soil health tour in Indiana these days and one is likely to run into a lot of farmers like Werling. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that events like this tend to attract true believers in the power of healthy humus to do everything from create more resilient fields to clean up water.

But what sets Indiana apart is that it’s home to an initiative that has found a way to take the passion of farmers like Werling and use it as an engine for driving change on a whole lot of farms whose owners may not be card-carrying soil sophisticates—they’re just looking for ways to cut fertilizer costs and keep regulators off their backs, all the while remaining financially viable.

Werling is one of a dozen “Hub Farmers” located across Indiana who are at the core of one of the most successful soil health initiatives in the country. In just a few short years, a public-private partnership called the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative (CCSI) has helped get around 8 percent of the Hoosier State’s crop fields blanketed in rye and other soil-friendly plants throughout the fall, winter and early spring—times when corn and soybean fields are normally bare. No other Corn Belt state is even close to having that high a percentage of its land protected with continuous living cover. Indiana’s success has farmers, soil scientists and environmentalists across the country excited about the potential CCSI holds as a national model. But first, one key questions needs to be addressed: can a state parlay all of this interest in one conservation farming technique—in this case cover cropping—into a holistic embrace of a larger soil health system?

A Corn Belt Leader

As of fall 2015, roughly a million acres of Indiana farmland was planted to cover crops, according to transect surveys done by government agencies. There are approximately 12.5 million acres of cropland in Indiana and the state has a long ways to go before the majority of land is protected with continuous living cover, but it’s already light years ahead of its compatriots in other parts of the Corn Belt.

Iowa, by contrast, has just over 500,000 acres of cover-cropped land, estimates Sarah Carlson, who works for Practical Farmers of Iowa and is a nationally recognized expert on cover cropping. That means around 2 percent of that state’s cropland is protected outside the regular growing season. Updated, accurate estimates of cover cropped acres in other states are hard to nail down, but the latest U.S. Agriculture Census shows Minnesota, Illinois and Ohio have, respectively, around 400,000, 300,000 and 360,000 acres in cover crops. None of these states have more than 4 percent of their cropland cover cropped, which is half Indiana’s 8 percent figure. In addition, the average Indiana farm growing cover crops has devoted 113 acres to the practice, while that figure is 72 acres in Minnesota and 53 acres in Iowa, according to the Agriculture Census.

The Ag Census figures are from three years ago, and a national cover crop survey coordinated by the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program during the past few years shows cover cropping is generally trending upwards from those 2012 levels. But no Corn Belt state is trending higher, or faster, than Indiana.

A decade ago, around 20,000 acres of the Hoosier State’s farmland was cover-cropped, and as recently as 2013, that figure was around half-a-million acres. University of Maryland soil ecologist Ray Weil has visited the state numerous times to give presentations, tour farms and scramble around in soil pits. He recalls a drive he took in the state during the winter of 2012. “We must have passed a couple thousand fields and I counted two cover cropped fields,” he says.

On his most recent visit to the state this summer, Weil was impressed at how much progress had been made in the intervening years. “Indiana seems to be leading the change,” says the scientist. “On paper it doesn’t make any sense. It has nothing to do with climate and soils.”

But it does make sense when one takes a closer look at Indiana’s intensive team effort to get more of its land growing plants (and roots) for more than a few months out of the summer.

Roots in No-Till

The Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative consists of federal, state and local natural resources agencies working with farmers and an array of private businesses, from fertilizer and seed companies to implement dealers. Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), says CCSI is rooted in a statewide program that began in 2002 and focused on promoting and supporting no-till farming. What he and others discovered during that program’s run was that successfully making a major change like no-till is more complex than buying a new planter or modifying field work schedules. The transition years are critical, especially since a major deterrent to no-till adoption is its reputation for causing a drop in crop yields. Going cold turkey on tillage may produce conservation benefits on the surface, but the soil underneath is likely to be so biologically unhealthy that it lacks the ability to carry out basic functions like provide nutrients and minerals to plants while making good use of water.

“You’re going to struggle in any system if your soil fails to function,” says Fisher.

That’s when he and other soil conservation experts realized they were going to have to focus on soil health in general, and not just one tool or method, such as no-till.

So in 2009, CCSI was born. Under the leadership of Indiana NRCS state conservationist Jane Hardisty, the initiative used federal funding to develop a core group of specialists who were given advanced training in soil health development. They were even sent to Burleigh County, N. Dak., which has become the model for advancing soil health on farmland utilizing a teamwork approach.

Back in Indiana, these specialists then formed their own regional soil health teams, or Hubs, which consist of farmers, soil and water experts and Purdue University Extension educators, among others. At the heart of CCSI’s work are the workshops and field days it puts on, many of them at working farms. It organizes around 60 such events across the state a year, drawing around 6,500 farmers and certified crop advisers.

Talking about the importance of protecting our soil is nothing new in farming. But the explosion in interest in the biological aspects of soil health in recent years has added a new wrinkle that CCSI has been able to take advantage of. By supercharging that biological activity, farmers can go beyond just putting in a terrace or a grassed waterway to cut surface erosion. They can actually have a positive impact on their entire field’s ecosystem using homegrown creativity—an affirming message that they are in the driver’s seat.

“That’s been a real game changer—the language we use to talk about this stuff,” says Ryan Stockwell, senior agriculture program manager for the National Wildlife Federation. Stockwell has been involved in soil health trainings in Indiana, and utilizes cover crops on his own Wisconsin farm. “Now that you talk about soil structure, all these benefits from soil health, it creates a lot of excitement. Indiana was just primed to take advantage of that.”

A major focus of CCSI, and it’s biggest source of success, has been one particular soil health tool: planting cover crops to protect fields during the “off-season” for corn and soybeans.

“In my 30 years in this job, very few practices have taken off so exponentially,” Fisher says of cover cropping.

Getting farmers excited about such things as soil bacteria, root interactions and organic matter is one way to avoid the trap of farmers seeing planting some rye after corn harvest as the end-all solution. Whenever CCSI team members get a chance, they emphasize it’s just one tool—albeit an important one.

“We almost never just talk about cover crops. You better be willing to adjust your pest management practices, your nutrient management practices,” says Fisher.

In other words, CCSI isn’t just laying out a menu of innovative practices producers can pick and choose from—it’s trying to change the very nature of how farmers view soil. “If you can’t trigger the ‘want-to’ in a farmer, all the data won’t do any good,” says Fisher. “It’s almost an emotional response.”

But farmers have to start somewhere on the road to building their soil’s biology, and invariably that means experimenting with planting a few acres of small grains or some tillage radish. Like soil health initiatives in other states, CCSI has made extensive use of providing government cost share monies so farmers can establish cover crops. But Fisher says their experience with promoting no-till taught them an important lesson about the need for going beyond just subsidizing some seed or equipment.

“If we threw out cost-share money for 40 acres and didn’t help them in that transition to a new system, they would fail and say, ‘I’ll never do that again,’ ” he says, adding that even if the farmer was initially successful, the experimental practice has to be sustainable long after the government money is gone. “It can be a train wreck if you don’t provide technical support.”

Customer Support

That’s why from day one, CCSI’s strategy was to create the same kind of support network farmers enjoy when they pursue more conventional farming practices. That meant not just having government technicians available in each region to help with the basics of bringing the soil back to life. It also requires teaming up with the players that farmers are comfortable working with on a daily basis: fertilizer suppliers, seed dealers, co-ops, crop advisers and implement companies.

“The farmers overwhelmingly get their information from the co-op and fertilizer dealers,” says Iowa’s Carlson. “You have to bring them into the picture.”

Fisher and the other CCSI coordinators have done just that. At first it was a bit of a hard sale to get input suppliers on board with promoting cover cropping, since it’s a technique that can eventually result in reducing demand for the fertilizer, chemicals and other products they are in the business of supplying. But in the early years of the initiative, Fisher visited businesses throughout the state and talked about how helping farmers build healthy soils can open up new markets— they need to purchase cover crop seed from someone, for example, and chemical applicators can be modified to spread seed.

Betsy Bower agrees. She’s an agronomist for CERES Solutions, which provides everything from grain handling and agronomic services to fuel and crop insurance to farmers via 22 locations, mostly along the western edge of Indiana. She says her company started getting into the cover cropping business five or six years ago as a result of customer demand.

“They were coming to us as their trusted adviser,” she recalls. “What do you think we ought to do? What are the various rates? How do we control weeds? As cover crops become more popular, it’s going to be in our best interest to learn along with them.”

Bower says the company now offers an array of cover cropping services, from soil tests and species selection advice to planting and termination. She estimates cover cropping now makes up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the company’s business, depending on the branch location. One thing cover cropping does is allow firms like CERES to keep their applicator drivers busy at a time when they would normally be idle or under-utilized. They can apply chemicals and fertilizer in the spring, and cover crop seed in the late summer and fall.

Another key player in CCSI’s success is implement companies, which not only sell the planters to put on cover crop seed, but can offer custom field work or modify equipment for seeding. Adam Fennig with Fennig Equipment in Coldwater, Ohio, says that the interest in modifying tillage equipment so that it could plant cover crops “exploded” around 2010. His family’s company specializes in mounting seed boxes, drop tubes and deflectors on vertical tillage tools. He does some 60 modifications per year, mostly in Indiana, Ohio and Illinois, and the custom enterprise makes up about 30 percent to 40 percent of the firm’s business.

“But that’s about to change in a big way,” Fennig says excitedly, estimating that perhaps as much as half of their business will be related to modifying equipment for cover crop seeding by the end of 2016. That’s because more farmers are starting to report back major benefits from planting cover crops: everything from reduced soil compaction to yield increases. Many of those reports are emerging firsthand at CCSI field days and workshops.

Fennig says another factor is that there’s a lot of buzz these days around modifying “high-boys” into cover crop seeders. These are the gangly, skinny-wheeled chemical applicators that can drive through standing corn late in the season without damaging the stalks. In a “swords into ploughshares” kind of trick, mechanics are tweaking high-boys so they can seed cover crops into corn in August, providing a jumpstart on fall growth.

“That’s going to push things hard,” Fennig says of the expanded high-boy sprayer modification business. “I think 2016 will be our biggest year yet.”

Fennig and Bower credit CCSI for not only providing them the information they need for providing the proper cover cropping support, but for creating the interest in this technique on the part of farmers.

“We keep in close contact with Barry Fisher and he lets us know of events in the area,” says Fennig. “We try to participate when we can, because Barry can always draw a crowd.”

Indeed, the agribusiness support arm of farming was on display at several well-attended CCSI field days held this past August across the state. At Moody Farms, a large cropping operation in northeastern Indiana near the Ohio and Michigan borders, seed company representatives showed off an impressive array of miniature cover crop plots: crimson clover, Austrian winter peas, hairy vetch, radish, rape, turnips, kale, Ethiopian cabbage, sunflowers, annual ryegrass, cereal rye, oats, pearl millet, triticale and winter barley. As participants walked past each planting, their advantages and disadvantages were described in detail.

Nearby, Adam Fennig stood next to a tillage implement that had been modified into a cover crop seeder and described how the process works. A shiny red high-boy sat a few yards away and another implement expert described being able to use it to plant cover crop seed in corn that’s “14 feet high.”

Digging into the Science

An argument could be made that another form of support—an input supplier so to speak—farmers rely on is agricultural science. And helping farmers unearth some of the wonders beneath their feet can take them beyond just focusing on one tool like cover cropping. During a recent series of summer CCSI field days, soil ecologist Ray Weil repeatedly drove home the point that soil is more than a growth medium for corn, soybeans and a few small grains or brassicas.

“You can’t just throw out cover crop seed and keep doing what you’re doing,” he says at one point while standing in a four-foot pit that’s been back-hoed out of a southern Indiana cornfield. As farmers and crop advisers gather around the trench, Weil uses a hunting knife to point out where fat corn roots are tracing their way through the profile. Roots are a key part of Weil’s lesson today. It’s Aug. 20, and just a few days before, the owners of the field, Clint and Dan Arnholt, had used a high-boy to seed radish and rye into this stand of corn, which is well above everyone’s head. Weil estimates there can be a couple hundred pounds of unused nitrogen at the four-foot level, and corn is inefficient at making use of it. Within three or four weeks of planting the rye and radish, their roots will be soaking up the excess nitrogen while bringing other nutrients and minerals closer to the surface.

Fisher and the CCSI team had brought Weil to the state for a week of field days and presentations like this because of his reputation as one of the nation’s leading soil ecologists, someone who can put cover cropping in perspective as just one tool for attaining soil health.

Soil pits play a major role in such field days. Seeing radish roots “bio-drill” through what was thought to be an impenetrable soil hardpan caused by years of plowing, wheel traffic and lack of biological activity can be a real eye-opener.

Michael Werling, the northeastern Indiana farmer, recalls when a pit dug in one of his more marginal fields revealed that his use of cover cropping, no-till and crop rotations had built up the organic matter to the point where an expert determined he had slightly modified his soil type.

“He said he would have to reclassify the soil,” says Werling proudly while checking out a pit at another farm during a CCSI field day. “That’s pretty encouraging.”

During what was affectionately termed “Ray Days,” Weil spent a lot of time in pits from one end of the state to the other, talking about the latest innovations in soil science. He should know: besides doing cutting-edge work on the impacts various farming techniques have on soil, Weil is the co-author of the seminal textbook, The Nature and Properties of Soils.

Whether standing in a hole or giving a PowerPoint presentation in a farm’s cavernous machine shed, Weil has a consistent message: the science of soil is in flux, and farmers can be on the cutting edge of this exciting revolution. He describes how cover crop roots not only go vertical in search of moisture and nutrients, but send branches in a horizontal pattern. Weil has utilized the same cameras that are used in colonoscopies to trace root channels—it doesn’t get any more cutting-edge than that. Of particular interest to soil scientists these days is the role mycorrhizae fungi can play in building soil health. By interacting with a plant’s roots in a symbiotic fashion, such fungi can create a diverse biological universe that’s resilient and able to cook up its own fertility.

“We’re finding out plants send out all sorts of signals underground,” says Weil at one field day, citing a recent study that showed older corn hybrids were sending out a signal when besieged by corn rootworm to recruit nematodes to attack the pest. “That’s pretty cool. That’s the way nature works. We didn’t really appreciate the role of roots in building soil until relatively recently.”

His point, which is reiterated by the soil pits: it’s not enough to look at the surface of the soil—take a peak underground as much as possible. In fact, more than once Weil admits to farmers with embarrassment that while revising the latest edition of his textbook he had to re-write the section on organic matter. It turns out farmers can have a bigger influence on their soil’s organic matter than scientists once thought.

But Weil has another critical message: we don’t need to decipher the minutiae of how soil protozoa and bacteria interact in order to benefit from it. The key is diversity, which provides the habitat for these interactions to thrive.

“If we can encourage the diversity, we can encourage the workings of this system, even if we don’t understand all of it,” says Weil. “Nature will sort it out.”

It’s an effective message for a group that is a mix of veteran cover-croppers and newbies. At each field day and presentation, farmers nod their heads in agreement with Weil’s point that we’re all along for a ride on a train pulled by an exciting, if sometimes baffling, ecological engine. This conversation is going way beyond just providing tips on the best seeding rates for rye and turnips.

One of the farmers agreeing with Weil is Gordon Smiley, who farms 1,200 acres of row crops with his brother Jeff in southern Indiana. For the past few years, the Smileys have been using cover crops, and despite a few hiccups along the way, now feel they are an important part of their farm. They have a farrow-to-finish hog operation and the cover crops offer a way to soak up excess nutrients and reduce runoff. Gordon says their soil has a crumbly, mellow texture and is full of earthworms.

“What convinced me was the shovel test—digging and seeing the soil underneath,” he says while standing in the shade of a machine shed several yards from a soil pit where Weil has just finished one of his presentations.

So far the brothers have focused mostly on planting a single species like rye as a cover crop, but Smiley says he’s excited to move to the next level of soil health and try cocktail mixes of as many as 10 species. He’s been watching online soil health videos and attending CCSI field days.

“They’re way out there,” he says of the innovators in soil health he’s been observing and interacting with. “We talk about mycorrhizae fungi, we talk about all the bacteria.” Then he throws his hands in the air to symbolize lots of activity going on at once. “It’s exciting.”

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter. This is the first of two blogs on the Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative. Part two examines how the initiative is using “rock star” farmers, the threat of environmental regulation and economic reality to create a culture of cover cropping, and hopefully, soil health improvement, in Indiana.