Author Archives: Timothy Buckley

Green All Year – The Legacy of Cover Crops

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the results of large scale pivot irrigation from the air. The square miles of patchwork rectangular fields interrupted by amazingly green circles of green.

Cover crops have the potential to turn lots and lots, acres upon acres, into green. And I mean that in more ways than one. And among the most beneficial aspect of planting something like annual ryegrass? It doesn’t need to be irrigated. And, because of its deep rooting nature, irrigation of crops is required less, if at all.

Annual ryegrass roots grow to depths of four, five and even six feet under. The mass of roots, in addition to being a great source of food for microbiology in the soil and a way to increase your organic matter, actually create an environment in which available precipitation is more easily integrated into deeper soil structure. That means your crops will be better able to withstand dry and drought conditions.

With its deep rooting structure, annual ryegrass also “mines” nutrients from deeper soil layers, like P and K. And because annual ryegrass sequesters available nitrogen while alive, that nitrogen is available (through the decay of roots and residue) during the growth season for corn and beans in late spring, after terminating the cover crop.

The final “green” in the equation is profit. With annual ryegrass as a rotation partner, you’re not having to invest in irrigation equipment. You’re spending less on nitrogen and weed control. You’re not having to repair eroded fields or install miles of tile lines.

Then, you find out that your soil’s health is improving with cover crops. You learn that the organic matter is increasing again after a generation of deep tillage. You find that you can graze the cover crop and make extra money with livestock. Then you see that your corn production is increasing with fewer inputs! Your harvests are larger. Your bottom line is bigger.

So when you hear the liberals chanting about a “Green New Deal” you can smile and say “I’ve got my green new deal. It’s called annual ryegrass, and I’m happy as a clam.”

Remembering 9/11 Through Two Lenses

The loss of life from the attack on the US by commercial jets flown by Saudi nationals still haunts those alive in 2001.

Given the constant drumbeat of new disasters – catastrophic storms, a pandemic disease, raging drought-fueled forest fires, political unrest, a never-ending election cycle, and increased violence in the streets – it’s hard to remember back to when there was peace, growing prosperity and hope living together under one roof called America.

Image result for images peace versus chaos

On this day of remembrance, perhaps it’s worth considering two things: one, how easy is it to find consensus in your family? And, two, what can each of us do to live closer to the promises of our Bill of Rights, the US Constitution, and the lessons of the New Testament? If we can see our way to being kind and just in our families, it becomes possible to do the same thing in our community, and the circle slowly expands from there. It begins with a deep desire for peace, not revenge.

As growers, as farming communities, it is perhaps easier to see how important patience and adopting a long view of things is. And, like we’re learning with use of cover crops, we can be a partner to nature in a way that benefits us and others. It’s a win-win, when you think that planting in concert with nature benefits the soil, the crop yield and your profits.

So, on this day of solemnity about the losses due to terrorism, consider ways in which we can each contribute to peace by starting with ourselves…taking a long look and seeing what can be planted today to reap a better harvest tomorrow.

The Paradox of Cover Crop Statistics

A survey of ag lands in the US shows that the Midwest is adopting cover crop usage at a faster rate than the national average.

If you remove from the total farm acreage those acres planted in hay and winter wheat, there is about 230 million acres planted in crops that could benefit from cover crops. Estimates from the survey say that cover crops were planted regularly on almost 15 and a half million acres of cropland in 2017. While that number is still below 10 percent of total cropland committed to cover crops, the good news is that the average increase is about 8 percent a year since 2012.

Better news yet is that the adoption rate in the Midwest far exceeds the national average. Whereas the nation gained just shy of 50 percent in cover crop adoption in those five years, the Midwest was at almost 80 percent increase in that time!

The above table shows that Iowa almost tripled its cover crop acres in fie years while four other Midwestern states more than doubled theirs. Indiana, an early adopter state (partly due to the work of pioneer cover crop advocates like Mike Plumer and Junior Upton) did not double the acreage devoted to cover crop use, although the state continues to lead the nation in the total number of acres planted in cover crops.

At the current rate of increase, the US would could reach 40 million acres in cover crops in this decade. Rob Myers, the regional director of extension programs for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), said that if rate increases elsewhere begin to follow the Midwest states’ trend, the 40 million acre figure might actually be much higher.

Cover Crops and Voting

Cover crops are to soil health as voting is to our civic health.

You don’t get a crop of any sort to grow unless you plant seeds. Likewise, you don’t get democracy unless we cast our votes like so many seeds into the electorate soil.

Doubt has been cast about voting this year. Some say they fear the potential of fraud in mailed in ballots, although that fear has not produced much evidence of it being the case. In the meantime, political parties in a whole lot of states are vigorously trying to undermine both the legitimacy of voting by mail as well as the opportunity to vote at the polls.

Cover crops are still relatively new, so it can be reasonable to doubt whether they’ll have a desired effect on our corn and bean production. Despite decades of success stories, there are still those who either disbelieve or can’t be bothered. It does take effort, after all, to change management styles in the middle of a successful farming career.

But, unlike cover crop adoption, voting has been a foundation of our democracy for more than 200 years. Voting should not be a scary or suspicious activity, even vote-by-mail, which has been fraud free, convenient, and efficient for decades in some states.

It is important that voting be easy. Some countries offer national voting days as holidays, to increase the number of ballots cast. But more important than ease, it’s important for the integrity of our way of governance that elections include as many citizens as possible. More than 90 million voting age people in the US are not registered to vote. The percentage of voting age people who voted in the last general election (2016) was slightly over 55 percent! That’s among the lowest in the world, among so-called “developed” nations.

If the apathy about voting were to be extended into every aspect of our farming life, where would our farms be. If Fortune 500 companies figured they could turn a profit with just over half their employees showing up, or just over half the capitalization they needed, where would our economy be today?

Derechos…And Community Support in Time of Need

The storm that kicked Iowa, Indiana and other parts of the Midwest in the gut last week was a crushing blow to millions who lost power, lost property and lost a year’s worth of hard work in the fields.

Midwesterners have dealt with adversity since the the country was homesteaded. It’s part of the heritage, part of how the people there have earned their stripes as tough, realistic, hard working and plain spoken.

Toughness aside, Midwesterners are also charitable and generous when disaster strikes. They pull together and help one another survive.

In the best of times, our government….the WE THE PEOPLE part of our founding language…the part we pay taxes to…has stepped in to help communities establish peace and health, even financial support in times of calamity. That isn’t a guarantee anymore, whether because the government hasn’t the funds or because government assistance is seen as a giveaway, welfare, maybe even socialism. We send troops to quell uprisings of people expressing their frustration about police killing of unarmed citizens. But we can’t find our way to send FEMA support to storm ravaged communities in the Midwest?

It doesn’t have to be this way…we fought together against foreign tyrants and against childhood disease. We contributed money, sweat and tears to get our public infrastructure in place…the dams, the highways, the airports, the schools and our armed forces that made America strong.

We’re bigger than our differences. That’s been proved time and time again, in small rural landscapes and in large cities. We unite because we need one another; we unite because it makes us stronger against those who would dare to ruin this experiment in democracy.

Cover Crops and COVID

Change is hard, and COVID shows us again how adapting to a new regimen is necessary for human survival.

Conventional farming is another example. For decades, farms became more productive by adding more acreage, more equipment and more chemistry.

Conservation tillage may be the equivalent of mask-wearing, social distancing and immunization requirements during this pandemic. It’s tough medicine. It’s aggravating and inconvenient. And the older we are, the more reluctant we may be to embrace those new ways.

Walking in the woods, while often relaxing, is also a way to see how change is normal in nature. Fallen timber, once upright and vibrant, are now “nurse logs” for a host of microorganisms, fauna and flora that rely on the decay of carbon in the tree for new life in so many forms.

Cover crops are like nurse logs in that way. When the cover crop is eliminated, the residual top growth and decaying roots become organic matter, the life blood of other forms of life.

When soil becomes naturally healthy again, when no-till and cover cropping allow the myriad life forms to return, the crops grown in that improved soil will pay dividends.

regenerative agriculture | Re-Source

That’s why younger farmers are embracing new methods with gusto. Just as we old timers did in our day, the younger men and women are not afraid of hard work, nor are they afraid of change. They’re in it for the long haul, and they know their investment in cover crops and regenerative agriculture methodology will pay off for them and their children.

The great thing about regenerative ag is that it will also pay off for the rest of us…everybody up and down the food chain.

Seeding Options for Annual Ryegrass

Moving into fall and harvest season, it’s time to think about seeding your cover crop for next winter and spring.

While “interseeding” of cover crops has become more popular – where you plant annual ryegrass or other cover crop seeds into knee-high corn or beans – the majority of cover croppers still plant in the late summer or fall. Here’s a quick summary of options.

Broadcasting seed by aircraft or high-clearance field equipment is very popular for a couple of reasons. First, it’s done before harvest, where there’s less going on in the field in terms of equipment use. Secondly, it takes advantage of warmer weather to allow the cover crop seed to germinate before colder weather sets in.

The downsides to broadcast seeding are few, but here they are:

  • Aircraft application can be messy – missing some areas or drifting over into a neighboring field
  • Broadcasting in any fashion may waste seed – getting caught in foliage, for example, or laying on top of the soil without enough precipitation to germinate. It’s best to seed just ahead of a predicted rainstorm for best results.

The old standard for planting cover crops was to drill it into the field at the time of corn or bean harvest. When done in optimum conditions, there’s no better way to assure a good cover crop because it gets the best seed-to-soil contact. But there are a couple of reasons why many farmers have moved to other cover crop strategies.

  • Harvest time is busy enough without adding another chore
  • Harvest time is not predictable and thus planting cover crops is sometimes left to chance – will the fields be in good enough shape to plant? Will there be suitable weather to allow establishment of a cover before temperatures drop?

Click on the following links to find out more about seeding options.

Cover Crops Linked to Cleaner Water

” Agricultural land and good water quality usually do not mix.” That’s according to academics and agronomists, who echo what farmers are finding out for themselves. That’s why cover crops are essential.

You’ve learned by now how cover crops keep nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the field, instead of rushing off the field in heavy rainfall or spring thaw. Whereas agriculture used to be considered destructive to the environment, with conservation tillage it’s a whole new ballgame. In fact, in the article quoted above, the upper Midwest research indicates that reduction of agricultural runoff is helping to clean up the Great Lakes.

It’s hard to imagine that the Great Lakes contain over 20 percent of the freshwater on the planet! Thus, it’s a major source of drinking water for about 40 million people, it’s crucial that the source remain viable for that purpose, as well as serving as habitat for countless species of wildlife, fish and other forms of life.

Reports from the East and Gulf coasts indicate that cover crops also are having an impact on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico, where algae bloom from excess ag runoff has caused eutrophication and hypoxia. Basically, those words mean death to aquatic life, an important fishing industry and eventually tourism as well.

It’s hard to imagine that you planting annual ryegrass on your acreage would have that kind of effect. But as thousands of farmers each year are finding out, the small improvements made on your property has ripple effects a thousand miles away.

Not only do cover crops make your property (and your bank account) healthier, the effort you make impacts millions of others who depend on a clean environment for their food, health and entertainment.

Transition to Cover Crops – Cornerstone to Sustainable Ag

Check out this video on YouTube – of Rich Clark, Field to Market’s Farmer of the Year in 2019. Rich is a fifth generation Indiana (Williamsport) farmer and his claim to fame is making conservation tillage and cover cropping into a full-time affair. The term for this type of ag – “regenerative”!

He began no-tilling and cover cropping only a decade ago, but said his first year with it (annual ryegrass) convinced him he was on the right track. He said after only one year doing a cover crop in corn, it produced the best average yield of his entire 7000 acre farm!

Since then, Rich has converted his entire acreage to cover crops. He’s gone all NON-GMO seed, which has given other farmers the incentive to try it too. Massive food companies like Dannon and Unilever contract with farmers like him to grow products sought by more and more people seeking food health and safety.

He said, “We have a diverse mix of crops and we have cattle. We are 100% non-GMO on all crops and we don’t use any starter fertilizer, fungicide, seed treatment or insecticide at all.”

One of his key practices is crop rotation, because it (and cover crops) contributes to a natural bonus of nitrogen into the soil. It also reduces weeds, interrupts the life cycle of pests and thus eliminates the need of pesticides. Here, from an article in the Sustainability Alliance website, Rick describes how he manages the rotation. “One-third of our farm is in a three-crop rotation – corn, soybeans and wheat. Another third is in a four-crop rotation – corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa for a nearby dairy. The remaining third is in transition to organic. We have just got approval for our first organic certified acres, which I’m very excited about.”

Among the outcomes of this switch to a Nature-oriented growing is that Rick says he spends LESS per acre than he used to…less on fertilizer and other chemicals, and less on equipment (he doesn’t need as much power so he sold off some of his more powerful tractors in favor of smaller ones, which saved him $35,000 in fuel in the past nine years!)

And the frosting on the cake…his choice to move to regenerative ag has him working with other customers who pay premium for non-GMO, locally raised crops and livestock,

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.