Cover Crops: The Hardest Step is the 1st One

The telephone rang late one afternoon in early October. It was a call from a jubilant, if exhausted, dairy farmer who said he’d planted 20 acres of rye the previous night. He said he’d been attending Land Stewardship Project cover crop/soil health events and that despite the pitfalls of harvest, machinery and too much rain, he was determined to do something this year. “I just hope it gets up and green,” he said, and after that, well, he’d figure out what he would do with it next spring.

He had taken that all important first step.

One doesn't have to be a farmer to know that the hardest part of taking on something new is getting starting. Factoring in the building of soil as well as the growing of a main crop is undoubtedly "something new" for many farmers. And if your soil-building tool of choice is cover crops, first steps must take into account seed choices, equipment, getting a cash crop out in time to get a cover in, cash crop chemical carryover, and how to deal with the cover crop in the next growing season. But as farmers across the Midwest repeatedly make clear in an annual cover crop survey, sticking with this practice past year-two brings exponential rewards.

That's certainly the case when it comes to the farmers raising cover crops as part of the Land Stewardship Project's Haney Soil Health Project in southeastern Minnesota. They are seeing intriguing results even in this second year of the initiative, which prompted four of them to share their experiences during a pair of field days in late September. Scroll down to the slideshow at the bottom of the page for a peek at how things look and what host farmers had to say about their cover crop experiences.

A little background on this soils-focused initiative: demonstration fields range in size from a few acres to 60 and are managed with and without chemicals. This makes for a perfect illustration of the utility of cover crops regardless of farm size and cultural practices. Planting cover crops is an equal opportunity decision for any farmer or landowner who realizes that putting money into their soil is an essential cost of business.

Much like re-roofing your home before it leaks, building soil is an unglamorous way to spend at least $25 an acre on what you wouldn’t miss until it is gone. But unlike a new roof, biologically active soil with good tilth reaps measurable and repeat rewards within years; it also requires annual attention that can feel daunting at the beginning.

Learning the ropes together is a big part of why LSP invited southeastern Minnesota farmers to plant small fields of cover crop mixes along with their usual crops and to meet a couple times a year to discuss their observations. These demonstration farmers (and others) also send soil samples in for analysis using the Haney Soil Health Test, which is showing positive results for correlating biological activity (as measured by respiration) with nutrient availability and, therefore, soil fertility and productivity.

LSP was started almost 35 years ago out of concern for soil erosion, so it is gratifying to see the current interest in putting more living cover and roots in the ground for more months of the year. Erosion control is the frequent inspiration for figuring out how to keep the soil covered; add to that the positive implications for water quality, fertility, resilience in the face of severe weather, and the ability to double crop for cash, forage and feed, and you begin to grasp the magnitude of the all-encompassing package that we just call, “cover crops.”

Caroline van Schaik coordinates the Haney Soil Health Project out of LSP's office in Lewiston, Minn. She can be contacted via e-mail or at 507-523-3366. More information on this work is also available here. LSP thanks: USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation-Conservation Partners, Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program, and other funders for supporting this work.