Tag Archives: conservation tillage

The Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 9

Remember this bumper sticker: Every Day is Earth Day for Farmers?  

It was a reminder to tree-huggers who, since the first Earth Day (1970), had been wagging their fingers at farmers for being “bad for the environment.” Farmers, for their part, have been equally suspicious of environmentalists for wanting to restrict farm livelihoods with unrealistic government regulations.

Given that animosity and suspicion, it seemed unlikely that a partnership might ever form between farmers and environmentalists. But that is exactly what happened in the early 2000s, after The Nature Conservancy (TNC) had identified the Tippecanoe River watershed in Indiana among its top 10 priorities in America, in terms of threats to aquatic wildlife. They showed how sediment in the runoff from fields adjacent to the Tippecanoe River were killing freshwater mussels and other aquatic species in northwestern Indiana’s watershed.

Dan Towery, who by then worked as a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) agronomist and educator for the Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) in West Lafayette, Indiana, witnessed the historic partnership in real time. An Illinois native and graduate from Western Illinois University and, later, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dan had started his professional agronomy career in 1980, with NRCS.

Recalling those earlier days, Dan said the early ‘80s was when no-tilling began to attract the attention of agronomists and innovative growers. Given the erosion problems and loss of organic matter since the 1950s, people awoke to the value of no-till, and leaving plant residue on the soil after planting. Besides reducing erosion, no-till farming also reduces the number of tillage trips, thereby reducing fuel consumption as well as soil compaction. Likewise, it sets the stage for increasing organic matter and healthier soil biology, leaving soil intact and decomposing plants to be consumed by earthworms, fungi, and healthy bacteria.

Dan credits Larry Clemons, a conservation organizer for Indiana TNC, with the skills to bring together a diverse partnership to address the problem of freshwater pollution. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management was included, as were various land trust and environmental organizations, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Purdue University, corporations, and landowners, some whose activities impacted the river’s health. By the time Dan started at CTIC, it was already part of that effort. It was he who suggested the use of annual ryegrass as part of TNC’s plan to reduce runoff from fields.

Dan was introduced to the Oregon Ryegrass Commission administrator, Bryan Ostlund, in 2004 when Bryan was in the Midwest meeting with Mike Plumer and a number of growers, looking at early cover crop test plots on small farm acreage, using annual ryegrass.

By then, annual ryegrass had demonstrated its worthiness as a cover crop, and that was one of the primary ways in which TNC addressed agricultural impacts to the Tippecanoe. Buffer strips planted along the river eliminated most of the riverbank collapse. Cover crops in adjacent fields reduced or eliminated soil. But more importantly, it kept agricultural products (fertilizer, chemicals, animal waste) from leaching into nearby waterways. Since then, continued conservation efforts have begun to make progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Towery formed his own company in 2006 – Ag Conservation Solutions – and became a contractor for the Ryegrass Commission, collaborating closely with Mike Plumer. Working solo and as part of a team, Dan and Mike worked passionately, if not tirelessly, as advisors, facilitators, educators, and networkers. Sadly, Plumer died in 2017, and Dan continues his work to this day.

In terms of their outreach and education, both Dan and Mike were active in organizations – both ag and conservation related – that helped define best practices. Some of their advocacy work helped stimulate more financial incentives for those reluctant to try cover crops. Some of their work helped to shape environmental and ag policy, including the annual Farm Bill passed by Congress.

 Even as a good teacher, Dan has also been the first to admit that his success has hinged on his ability to listen and to learn. “And among the greatest teachers,” he said, “are those that live the closest to the soil.” It is in that respect that Dan has come to be a champion of “regenerative agriculture.”

Don’t Adopt – Adapt Instead

The days are long over for merely taking in what some trade show educator tells you and then applying it to your farm! You’ve learned how to take the guess work out of some of the things that used to be stumpers. Even taking your neighbor’s word for it comes with a grain of salt anymore, because the nature and condition of each farm acre is different.

Computers, GPS and soil testing have aided in our understanding of crop behavior, including what’s going on underground. In recent years, knowing the importance of microbiology in crop production has helped to improve soil health while also improving a farm’s balance sheet.

Cover crops provide residue (carbon) on the surface that keeps weeds down, releases stored nitrogen up to the next crop, and prevents soil heating, thus promoting a healthy environment for microbes, bacteria and fungi in the topsoil. The roots of old, terminated cover crops continue to give up food for biological life while adding to the organic matter of the soil.

While there are enough success stories out there to feel confident that cover crops are not a big risk. After all, many thousands have tried annual ryegrass and other cover crops, including cereal rye, and decided after a few years that they were going ALL IN, planting 100 percent of their acres in cover crops.

Regardless of what others did, however, starting out with a cover crop for the first time is a challenge. So, most transitioning to conservation tillage start with a small chunk of land before committing to plant the whole farm that way.

Once you see what changes occur on that test acreage, you’ll find out that managing annual ryegrass and other covers is not exceedingly difficult. You’ll also discover that the benefits, the savings and the profits warrant a bigger commitment.

Carbon Sequestration and Annual Ryegrass Cover Crop Acreage


Conservation tillage, in the best sense, includes cover crops. In addition to enriching the soil, cover crops literally inhale carbon dioxide from the air and use it for plant growth. What isn’t used for growth is eventually released back into the soil.

According to the Conservation Technology Information Center (and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization). upwards of ONE THIRD of the carbon emitted in our world (from power plants and internal combustion engines) could be offset if farmers worldwide would all make use of conservation tillage, including cover crops.

Carbon sequestration graphic

Annual ryegrass, as a cover crop, is adept at absorbing carbon and storing it in its massive network of roots. When killed in the spring, the annual ryegrass residue (including the roots) releases its sequestered nitrogen to help fertilize the new corn and beans in the field. At the same time, the carbon in the cover crop is released into the soil, improving the ratio of organic matter and adding to the food source for soil microbiology.

 

 

 

“Keep Up the Progressive Effort” on Cover Crops and No-Till, Says Dobberstein

John Dobberstein is managing editor of NoTill Farmer and the Conservation Tillage Guide.

Today, in the magazine’s E-Tip newsletter, he tipped his hat to those no-till and cover crop innovators for helping to change the face of agriculture…perhaps globally!

While some farmers have no-tilled and planted cover crops for decades, the practice has only taken serious root in the past eight to 10 years. The Oregon Ryegrass Commission has played a strategic role in that effort. With long time cooperation between Oregon annual ryegrass seed growers and University Extension agents like Mike Plumer and crop consultants like Dan Towery, a decade of trials attracted a lot of followers. Quickly, innovative farmers showed their neighbors, and conservation tillage was launched.

The Ryegrass Commission also sponsored early conferences on no-till and cover crop management, because they wanted to keep errors at a minimum. The last thing one wants is a bad experience to spoil the potential for growth.

So, here’s Dobberstein’s comments about the growth of no-till and cover crops, and his hearty encouragement to keep up the good effort. Click here for the full newsletter:

In the last month, while listening to leaders in both the private sector and federal government, no-till continues to be talked about on a national and global scale as a way to ease environmental and food-production challenges. Here’s what I’ve seen:

• Early in June, BASF held its Agricultural Solutions Media Summit (check out our Tweets) and tackled the issue of sustainability in food systems. A new research tool unveiled by the company, AgBalance, showed the use of conservation tillage had increased by 13% in Iowa between 2000 and 2010, and that a variety of best-management practices and hybrid improvements boosted the overall sustainability of corn production in the state by 40% during that time.

• Just yesterday, the USDA announced another $8.4 million in funding for voluntary farming-related projects that will address water-quality issues in several states bordering the Mississippi River. No-till, precision technology and cover crops will be crucial in this effort.

“Cover crops are one of the most exciting things that we’re doing,” said NRCS chief Dave White. “When I was growing up, it was winter wheat or cereal rye that was discussed. But now we’re getting different mixes out there with many different species.”