Set a Goal of 20% More
Living Cover by 2020
SAINT PAUL, Minn. — Farmer-members of the Land Stewardship Project attending the Governor’s Water Summit in St. Paul on Feb. 27 are highlighting the need for the state to work for more continuous living cover on farmland to help clean up our state’s water.
Corn and soybeans make up 75 percent of Minnesota farmland and cover the soil for only approximately 110 days of the year. This creates a long brown season, in which there are no living plants protecting the land’s surface and no living roots feeding the soil’s biological life and holding the soil in place. This leaves the landscape vulnerable to erosion and nutrient runoff.
“I would like to see Governor Dayton set an ambitious goal for our state of 20 percent more living cover on farmland by 2020 and direct his state agencies to work towards this goal,” said summit participant and dairy farmer Loretta Jaus of Gibbon. “Currently, only around 2 percent of our farmland is cover-cropped. We can and must do better.”
Research has shown that increasing living cover on farmland reduces runoff dramatically. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's “Nitrogen in Minnesota Surface Waters” report identified establishing more continuous living cover on the land as a key way to achieve the reductions necessary to meet clean water goals. On a farm that has abundant green living cover on the land year-round, water is stored in the soil and filtered through plant roots and living soil. More water stays on the farm and water that leaves the farm is cleaner.
“Governor Dayton was right to name runoff from farm fields as a leading contributor to our polluted waters and to call on farmers to come up with solutions that will work for us,” said dairy farmer Darrel Mosel. “Cover crops and perennial crops can clean the water and can work for farmers. They are working for me.”
Farmers need assistance from the state to adopt these practices. Incorporating cover crops like winter rye and tillage radish into row crops can increase profits by decreasing fertilizer inputs and, in some cases, increasing yields. There is also a strong need for research to develop new cover crops and perennial crops, as well as markets for those crops. The University of Minnesota is working to accomplish this through its Forever Green initiative, but that program faces funding challenges.
Perennial crops include pasture for livestock and the market for grass-based meat and milk is strong and growing. The state can play a role in helping farmers move to grass-based systems to meet this demand.
“One perennial crop that we can do more of in Minnesota is healthy pasture for livestock,” said grass-based beef farmer Terry VanDerPol of Granite Falls. “When we get livestock outside on well-managed pasture, we are putting continuous living cover on the land.”