COVER CROPS ADD TO FARM SUSTAINABILITY

10th Oct 2014 4R Consistent,4R Practices,Implement the 4Rs,Right Place,Right Rate,Right Source,Right Time,

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 9, 2014)
– A potentially record-setting U.S. corn harvest is underway. Many farmers can
attribute the use of cover crops as one of multiple best management practices
(BMPs) that help them increase yield year after year. Combined with BMPs of The
Fertilizer Institute’s 4R Nutrient Stewardship program that promotes the
application of nutrients at the right source, right rate, right time and right
place, farmers further ensure top production. 

“Interest in cover crops has grown
immensely the past few years,” said Eileen Kladivko, an agronomist and cover
crops specialist with Purdue University. “Cover crops are an integral part of
modern, sustainable agriculture. With improved plant genetics, synthetic
fertilizers, pesticides and machinery helping to increase yields, but sometimes
masking soil degradation, cover crops become an important part in helping to
improve underlying soil resources and in obtaining the full potential benefits
from additional crop inputs.”

She adds that different cover crops
provide different benefits and growers must decide what their primary
objectives are when selecting cover crops. 

“Cover crops are often planted for
their benefit to the soil or environmental quality and not for harvest,”
Kladivko added. “Some may be suitable for grazing or haying, but this means
they should be managed as forage crops.”

In general, she says the benefits
of cover crops fall into these categories.

  • Scavenge
    or, “trap” nitrogen and protect water quality – the crops trap residual
    soil nitrate to prevent it from leaching into groundwater.
  • Produce
    nitrogen – legumes fix atmospheric nitrogen for their own use. Once
    terminated, much of the nitrogen is released to succeeding crops as
    residues decompose.
  • Prevent
    erosion – the crops cover the soil surface to protect against water and wind
    erosion.
  • Build
    soil quality and/or recycle nutrients – cover crops improve soil’s
    physical properties, increase soil’s organic matter and increase soil’s
    biological activity.
  • Suppress
    weeds – some crops can suppress weeds by competition, shading or allelopathy.
  • Enhance
    wildlife habitat – cover crops can provide water, cover and food for
    wildlife and increase landscape diversity.

 

These benefits will vary from year
to year, depending on weather and the amount of growth of the cover crop, she
advises.

“After a drought year, it’s even
more important to plant a cover crop in the fall,” Kladivko adds. Once the
rains return, the cover crop will be there to scavenge some of those nutrients
not used by the cash crop.”

 

Cover crops make winners

Kladivko’s and her peers’ messages
about cover crops aren’t falling on deaf ears. In fact, practicing those
recommendations helped farmers across the country be honored as 4R Advocates
for the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Program.

George Brand is a 4R Advocate and
one of the owners of Brand Dairy Farms in Waterloo, Indiana. The
multi-generational business also includes 2,500 acres of row crops that include
corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.

All of Brand’s farmland is in the
St. Joseph watershed, which drains into the Maumee River and Lake Erie. Thus,
protecting water quality is very important to them. Grass waterways,
complemented with filter strips along open ditches and wascobs help control
soil runoff and erosion.

“We started incorporating cover
crops in our operation a few seasons ago,” Brand said. “We included rye,
crimson clover and radishes. It worked so well, we can’t wait to put them on
more acres.”

Chris VonHolten, a 4R Advocate who
farms 1,080 acres of corn and soybeans near Walnut, Illinois, couldn’t agree
more with Brand.

“I’m always evaluating new
products, technology and improved practices,” he said. “I adopt those that
improve the efficiency of my farm. If you’re not trying to learn something,
you’ll get in a rut.”

VonHolten used conservation tillage
from the start and all acres are now no-till or strip-till. Waterways that help
control erosion make up 16 acres of the property.

Controlling this potential runoff
helps keep nutrients in place. Cover crops help keep nutrients where they
belong, too. In 2013, he tested a cover crop mix on two locations to help
absorb excess nutrients and prevent soil erosion.

“I chose radishes and oats because
they winterkill, so a spring burn down doesn’t need to be applied, which
further protects the environment,” he said.

Whether it’s planting, applying
pesticide, applying or retaining nutrients, all practices are mapped and
monitored to ensure correct application amounts for each product.

“Each of these practices has its
role, but combined, they all work together for the benefit of the farm, the
environment and the community,” VonHolten added. “We’re going to keep using
cover crops and may even experiment with a summer companion crop.”

The winterkill VonHolten mentions
is important. Growers should plan in advance how they will control and
terminate cover crops.

“Some cover crops do not
overwinter, so farmers generally don’t need to plan for termination in the
spring,” Kladivko says. “Oats and oilseed radish are two common examples. On
other crops, herbicide applied according to label directions, tillage, mowing
or roller-crimping are effective termination methods.”

 

Helps the land

John Scates with Scates and Sons
Farm in Shawneetown, Illinois, is conscientious about the environment where he
farms. He also makes every attempt to keep a proper balance on nutrients on the
multiple soil types in his 17,000-acre corn, sorghum and wheat operation.

He’s an advocate of cover crops,
too. He uses a combination of grasses and legume to sequester nutrients in the
root zone during the winter fallow periods.

“The soil is our most important
asset,” Scates says. “Doing the right thing related to nutrients pays off
economically and environmentally.”

John Werries and his son, Dean,
operate Werries Farm, LLC, in Chapin, Illinois. He says his only regret about
cover crops is that he didn’t use them sooner.

“The first year we tried them, we
sowed a small amount of cereal rye,” Werries said. “We’ve added more of it
since. Plus, we’re enthused about cover crops. They stop soil erosion. They
sequester nutrients and reduce compaction. When they die, they add organic
matter. When we had excessive rain, our cover crops were in good shape and kept
our soil from washing away.”

Like Scates, Werries agrees soil is
the most important asset.

“We’ve got to take care of our
soil,” he said. “Cover crops help save it. Cover crops can be used on a large
scale and I encourage farmers to get with it. Most of us have the equipment and
management ability to do this. On top of that, there are those out there who’ve
done this longer than most of us. They’re willing to share their knowledge.”

Kladivko concurs. She recommends
checking with Extension agents, crop advisers and the Midwest Cover Crops
Council at http://www.mccc.msu.edu. More
information about cover crops and the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program is
available at nutrientstewardship.org.

“Good stewardship practices that
include cover crops will help ensure we continue to achieve excellent yields
over the long term,” she added.

Those practices will undoubtedly
help make a few more “winners,” too.

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Contact information:

Eileen Kladivko, 765-494-6372, k[email protected]

George Brand, 260-587-3765, [email protected]

Chris VonHolten, 815-866-2798, [email protected] 

John Scates, 618-525-8453, [email protected]

John Werries, 217-473-7360, [email protected]

Laura Kubitz, TFI Manager, Public
Affairs, 202-515-2716, [email protected]

4R Website: http://www.nutrientstewardship.com/