Courtesy of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
AMES, Iowa ??? If turnout at the annual workshop of the Midwest Cover Crops Council is any indication, the use of cover crops could be on the rise. More than 120 people from 13 states and provinces attended the March 3 event and nearly half were farmers, some who had never used cover crops in their operation. The workshop was hosted by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, the USDA???s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames, Practical Farmers of Iowa and the USDA???s Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program.
Participants were as varied as the practices used in cover cropping. They included large cash-grain farmers, livestock producers and graziers, as well as farmers growing vegetables on very small farms. So it was with keen interest that they listened to both researchers present some of the latest findings on these practices, and farmers share their practical experiences with managing cover crops, which included mixing cover crop seed with manure slurry applied to fields, modifying equipment, and tracking the many benefits of using cover crops.
Southeast Iowa farmer Steve Berger planted 1,000 acres of rye on his farm in 2007, and says that it works well with no-till operations to prevent soil erosion and encourage root growth.
???We get a tremendous root system out of rye and the corn roots follow them down,??? Berger said. ???If you get those corn roots to go down just one foot more, that???s two inches more of available moisture and in some years two inches is a big deal.???
In western Iowa, Ron Rosmann of Harlan uses cover crops for organic certification in his 600-acre diversified operation. Most recently, cover crops such as buckwheat provide additional forage for his livestock herd, half of which is pasture-fed. Besides providing ground cover, Rosmann said cover crops sequester carbon, provide nutrients for the next crop and have increased soil organic matter and soil quality since he started planting cover crops in 1984.
Another convincing recommendation came from Gary Guthrie, who converted two acres of his family???s corn-soybean farm in Story County into a garden that supplies a 74-member Community Supported Agriculture operation. ???When I started farming in 1998, I could not have imagined how productive my soil could be,??? he said. ???Cover crops have been the key to soil building, and disease and weed control.???
Guthrie said at first he could expect a 300 square-foot bed to produce about 100 pounds of carrots. However, as soil quality increases he also has increased production, and under the right conditions some beds have produced more than 450 pounds of carrots.
USDA plant physiologist Tom Kaspar helped organize the workshop and said he was pleased with the interest. He says that the most valuable part was the opportunity for farmers, extension educators, researchers and agency personnel to discuss cover crops and ask questions. ???Cover crops are a long-term investment and require a different approach in an operation,??? he said. ???People are more at ease asking questions and there???s a lot we can learn from one another.???
The Midwest Cover Crops Council has been gathering research-based information and experiential data from farmers over the past two growing seasons for a new web-based Cover Crop Decision Tool. The tool, to be launched later this year, will help users determine appropriate crops, planting times and other practices based on their needs and geographic area. Information from the workshop will be available on the council???s web site: www.mccc.msu.edu
The Leopold Center, PFI and USDA-ARS coordinate the Iowa Cover Crops Working Group, which works with the Midwest Cover Crops Council and the Green Lands, Blue Water initiative to improve water and soil quality.
Contacts: Tom Kaspar, National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, firstname.lastname@example.org, (515) 294-8873; Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, email@example.com, (515) 232-5661 x305; Jeri Neal, Leopold Center Ecology Initiative, firstname.lastname@example.org, (515) 294-5610; or Laura Miller, Leopold Center communications, email@example.com, (515) 294-5272
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