Category Archives: ARG Blog

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 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,

Spring Forward with Annual Ryegrass

Spring is, for cover croppers, the time to kill your cover crop before planting cash crops – corn or soybeans. For others, spring is also the time to plant annual ryegrass as a cover crop!

Interseeding is the name for putting out annual ryegrass seed in the spring, when your corn is established but before it reaches knee-high. There are a couple of reasons to consider doing it this way:

  • You avoid having to squeeze in a fall planting of annual ryegrass, when harvest and weather and field conditions can play havoc
  • The annual ryegrass will be well established in the fall when you take off the corn. It will have been sitting nearly dormant all summer – in the shade of the corn foliage – but its root structure will have been expanding, inching its way into the earth. This makes the grass more resilient to colder fall temperatures, and more likely to winter over in the field.
  • You can plant the cover crop with the same equipment used for side dressing the corn, thus creating efficiencies in your operation.

For those interested in interseeding principles and practices, check out this flyer. Below, a cover crop mix of annual ryegrass and clover established in the spring as corn grows to each side.

Ryegrass Saves the Gulf of Mexico…well, not quite Yet!

An article in the recent issue of Grist spent a lot of ink reporting on the value of cover crops. They looked specifically at a small Indiana watershed (Tippecanoe) and recorded what happened to the water quality when cover crop adoption approached 100%. Perhaps more accurately, they recorded what DIDN’T happen…the nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers stayed on the property and didn’t end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

In a short video, you can get the gist of what Grist had to say. Here’s that link.

But if you want to read the longer article, it’s worth it. Here’s that link, called Last Ditch Effort. Among those interviewed was Jamie Scott, an entrepreneurial grower in Indiana who has been instrumental for expanding the use of cover crop, particularly annual ryegrass, in the past 10 years.

Here’s a quote from the article, in terms of what they determined, in summary. After 13 years and a million dollars in state, nonprofit, and federal funding, the data show a clear decline in nitrogen and phosphorus flowing out of this watershed during the critical springtime thaw. These two nutrients fertilize crops, but when they wash into the water, they fertilize algae blooms and cause a host of problems. In other words, the chemicals we rely on to grow food often end up poisoning the planet and threatening the lives of many species on it, including ours.

Maybe you caught the editorial slant in the last sentence. Yes, Grist is an environmentalist magazine run by millenials who probably think they can right all the wrongs right away, if all the old folks would just quietly go away and die. But seriously, if a tree-hugging bunch of youngsters think cover cropping is going to save the planet, that’s good news…because cover crops can take care of a bunch of pollution problems, and that’s the truth.

Covering Cover Crops – Democratic Candidates Converge in Iowa – Get An Earful About “Regenerative Agriculture”

A story in the New Yorker magazine today is raising the national visibility about “regenerative agriculture”. https://www.newyorker.com/news/campaign-chronicles/how-an-iowa-farmer-used-the-campaign-stop-economy-to-push-climate-action-on-2020-democrats

In a nutshell, Lacona, Iowa farmer Matt Russell managed to attract a half-dozen of the 2020 Democratic contenders for president to his farm. His pitch…climate change is real and regenerative ag practices can do a bunch of things to mitigate some of the issues. No-till, and cover crops are part of the solution, and he said farmers need the federal government to invest in that future.

Cover Crop Adoption Steady for 20 Plus Years

Back in the 1990s, nobody but a few cranks and academics were playing around with no-till and cover crops. Then Mike Plumer started researching and testing the hypothesis that both practices would benefit farm profits and soil health.

Fast forward a quarter century, and take a look at the rate of adoption of cover crops in the Midwest.

The good news, over the past 12 years, more than 15 million acres of precious farm acreage have been planted in cover crops regularly, and are now building value and productive qualities. The first 10 years of Plumer’s and Dan Towery’s work to educate growers produced negligible results of cover crop acres. But by 2006, adoption began to gather momentum and the growth since then has been impressive.

The bad news, only about 5 percent of the acres planted for agriculture in the slightly expanded Midwest map are currently planting cover crops.

The good news: Three states (Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan) have about twice that average, with Pennsylvania topping the list at 12.9 percent of farm acreage in cover crops. (Michigan and Indiana are just behind, with 8.5 percent each). Further, both Michigan and Indiana have made better than 50 percent increases in just the last five years.

The bad news: if the growth rate continues at current rates, only about 14 million acres of the most productive farmland in the Midwest will be in cover crops by the year 2025. Presumably, the rest – more than 100 million acres – will still be in convenventional tillage.

Annual Ryegrass – Turning The Big Ship of Agriculture Around

In December, cover crop guru Dan Towery came to Oregon to address a conference of growers and suppliers about the history of annual ryegrass in the renaissance of cover crop use in the Midwest.

His message had one of those “good news/bad news” stories. The good news: the number of acres planted in cover crops has grown steadily since the introduction of annual ryegrass in the late 1990s. In fact, the annual rate of increase has reached as high as 15 percent.

The bad news: the overall percentage of ag acres committed to no-till and cover crops is still very low, compared to the number of acres planted. See the graphic below.