Tag Archives: no-till agriculture

Cattle Ranchers Talk Cover Crops and Forage on Their Feedlots and Farms

Shane and Shawn Tiffany are young, energetic Kansas ranchers, who earned their stripes working for other ranchers before starting their own company in the early 2000s.

Cattle and cover crops

Tiffany Cattle Company is small by comparison, but the men have already begun to attract attention for their integrity, attention to detail and innovation.

Next month, Shawn will be a key presenter at the 2019 National Cover Crop Summit, March 20-21, 2019 — a free-to-attend online event featuring a series of seminars by experts across the cover crop spectrum.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the old fashioned feedlot has changed. Ranchers seek pasture grazing to bring healthier diets, as well as lowering their costs for supplemental feed. Shawn’s company raises 32,000 cattle at a time in two locations west of Topeka. They’ve found that cover crops are both sensible and profitable, they also help to rebuild prairie soil depleted from years of tillage and compaction.

In a search of the internet on the subject of cattle and cover crops, there is a surprising diversity in usage throughout the country. Here’s a story from a 1,100 acre ranch/farm in South Dakota, where Jared Namken raises Angus beef. He says rotational grazing allows him to use the entire acreage most of the year, even with heavy snow cover. He says the cattle will dig through the snow to get to the tasty vegetation.

Nancy Peterson and her husband graze cattle on about 4,000 acres of native grasslands in Nebraska, and  farm 2,300 acres. They use little to no irrigation and the area is dry; annual precipitation is less than 16 inches.

Getting back to the 2019 National Cover Crop Summit, March 20-21, 2019 , here are some of the other notable presenters:

  • Steve Groff, Common mindsets for cover croppers, cover crop consultant, Pennsylvania
  • Tom Cotter, Interseeding cover crops for grazing benefits, f

    armer, Minnesota

  • Paul DeLaune, Extending cover crop benefits in continuous wheat and cotton rotations, Texas A&M Univ.
  • Rob Myers, How cover crops impact farm profits, SARE/USDA
  • Erin Silva, Rolling cover crops in no-till systems, Univ. of Wisconsin Organic Ag.
  • Damon Reabe, Seeding cover crops aerially, even in spring, Cover crop applicator
  • Chris Teachout, Alternative row spacing and biomass-building with cover crops, farmer, Iowa

Erosion Control – Listen to Cover Crop Innovator Steve Groff

It’s hard to believe that no-till and cover crops are still a strange concept to farmers, even after all the positive news there has been about it. Even after 30 years of increased popularity, less than 10 percent of Midwest farmers are active users of this revolutionary practice.

Steve Groff, a Pennsylvania farmer since the 1970s, said he first looked into no-till in the early 1980s, trying to slow down the erosion on his acreage. He said in a recent interview  that the practice did slow down erosion, especially after he began using cover crops.After three years,  he also noticed that the soil began to “mellow out,” meaning the infiltration of rain water increased, the organic matter was more evident and the microbiology in the soil improved.

In 1995, when cover crops first began to emerge, thanks in part to the Oregon ryegrass seed growers (and Mike Plumer at the Univ. of Illinois Extension), Groff began working with Dr. Ray Weil, a Univ. of Maryland professor of agriculture and natural resources. Groff and Weil partnered on research on cover crops. In the fourth year, Pennsylvania experienced a drought and Groff noticed that corn yield on acres planted in cover crops got 28 bushels more than adjacent fields with no cover crops. That was what convinced him…the boost in yield because of healthier soil.

“You couldn’t pay me to NOT plant cover crops,” Groff said.

But, to go back to erosion for a moment. In the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, with John Kempf,  the host described just how devastating erosion is for healthy crops. NRCS calculated that, on average, farmland in Iowa loses two pounds of topsoil every year for every pound of grain harvested!

Put another way, Groff said, every 1/4 pound hamburger represents four pounds of of topsoil lost to erosion!

Image result for dust storms midwest US 2018

Dust storms in Midwest, in addition to stripping topsoil from productive agricultural acreage, also causes fatalities due to poor visibility on roads.

Later in the podcast, Groff said that when he thinks about soil health, it’s not so much about a problem with erosion but a problem with infiltration. In other words, cover crops dramatically increase the soil’s ability to absorb water instead of it washing off the surface and removing topsoil with it.

He also said that soil health is not so much an issue with fertility as with microbial health. He said that if you have something growing in the field all year, with cover crops in the wintertime, the bacterial and microorganisms that rely on stable soil (untilled) with lots of organic matter. So, if the microbial health is there, the soil quality will be there as well.

Ryegrass, Good for a Climate Goin’ Through Some Changes

Science tends to win out over guesswork. Few would disavow centuries of medical experience in favor of hocus-pocus and suspicions. Similarly, those with decades of working the soil tend to heed the sciences pertinent to agriculture, rather than winging it based on something you heard from your brother-in-law.

So, whether the science of climate change is spot on, there’s little question that weather continues to be a major factor in growing healthy crops. Storms may be getting stronger, so it’s crucial to protect your most valued asset: the soil.

Corn Plant on Field

Annual ryegrass protects the soil from erosion throughout the year, because the soil is never fully exposed to the wind and heavy rain. Infiltration of water into the soil is improved, thus increasing the reservoir of moisture for later months. And when flooding does occur, cover crops like annual ryegrass will slow it down, and keep the event from washing out field tiles. Cover crops keep the moisture in the watershed, instead of it washing downstream, carrying  precious nutrients.

No-till and cover crops also provide soil integrity, allowing the roots and other organic matter to create an environment of stable health. As a living entity, the soil environment stays in place better when bad weather occurs if you’ve got it covered with a cover  crop..

When it turns dry, cover crops tend to reduce oxidation of the soil, and to provide a longer period before the soil dries out. Annual ryegrass roots being far deeper than other cover crops, it’s a safe bet that corn will flourish if annual ryegrass has been in the field for even five years as a cover crop.

Genetic engineering has played a significant role in crop durability and production. Coupled with no-till and cover cropping, agriculture in the Midwest is better equipped to withstand the changes brought on by climate variations, whether for the short term or permanently.

National Effort to Expand Use of Cover Crops

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The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research launched a national effort to expand use of cover crops. Called the Healthy Soils, Thriving Farms initiative, the group includes the USDA as well. It is a collaborative, multi-partner research effort to improve soil health in the United States. It continues the effort to encourage adoption of cover crops as well as develop new cover crop varieties with enhanced soil health-promoting traits.

The research expands into states not commonly practicing cover cropping methods, like

  • Maryland,
  • North Carolina,
  • Oklahoma,
  • Nebraska and M
  • issouri. Ideally, the research will begin with

cover crops with the greatest potential to improve soil health in a broad geographic context.  Annual ryegrass, small grains, annual legumes and brassicas will be used to start.

As has been demonstrated throughout the Midwest, northeastern US and southern provinces in Canada, cover crops are valuable for these reasons:

  • Improve soil health.
  • Mitigate erosion.
  • Increase crop yields.
  • Enhance water use efficiency.

For more on the study, here’s a link.

Earth Fix Boosts Production and Profit

More than a decade ago, it was becoming clear that runoff from farm acreage was choking fresh water flowing south from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. Satellite images, water testing and production declines in fisheries pointed to a pending disaster if agricultural practices were not modified. At risk, the health of millions who depend on clean water, as well as industries that depend on healthy water.

Cover crops were introduced in a dozen states that border tributaries to the Mississippi, as well as along that great stretch leading into the Gulf. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency produced a report for Congress outlining the “successes” in that gigantic project. Here’s a link to a summary.

Here’s one small result, from efforts in Indiana:

The 2014 fall transect [study] estimated 1 million acres of living plant cover such as cover crops and winter cereal grains were planted on Indiana farms. The report also shows most Indiana farmers left their tillage equipment in the shed in the fall to protect their fields with harvested crop residues. Results for residues and undisturbed soil on harvested acres during the winter months include: 77% of corn acres, 79% of small grain acres, and 82% of soybean acres.

The fall cover crop and tillage transect occurred again in 2015, and according to the data, over 1.1 million acres of cover crops were planted in 2015, which is an increase of nearly 10 percent compared to the previous year and 225 times more coverage over the past decade. The fall tillage and cover crop transect will be conducted again in late 2016.

Related image

In addition to keeping pollution from entering watersheds, the practice of cover cropping also makes a healthier environment for soil to heal. That, in turn, makes corn and soybean production more profitable, even in years when drought or low commodity prices carves into profits.

 

More Buzz about the Value of Cover Crops

“The good news is, soil will improve every year you grow a cover crop,” said Dan Towery, a crop consultant, and owner of Ag Conservation Solutions, living in West Lafayette, Ind.. “How soon you see measurable yield improvement depends on field history and what limiting factors, such as weather, are present in a year. For example, soils that are low in organic matter will benefit faster from cover crops.”

His comments are part of a longer article in the Farm Journal online. Click here to view the whole article.

Carbon sequestration graphicKen Ferrie is also interviewed for the article. Ferrie, Farm Journal’s Field Agronomist said “It might take many years to make big changes in soil health, but in some situations, you might see improvement (earlier than that.). For example, he cited a study in which annual ryegrass as a cover crop improved carbon content, bulk density and water infiltration IN THE FIRST YEAR!.

“As with any new practice, you’ll be eager to determine whether cover crops are having an impact,” Ferrie says. “Your soil physical provides a benchmark so you can follow up later and see if soil health is improving.”

Another farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown, talked about the benefits of cover crops in North Dakota. “You should use covers to address your resource concerns,” advises Brown. For the past two decades, he’s used cover crops to increase diversity, build organic matter, and improve water infiltration and the water-holding capacity of his soils.

“We look at each field separately and determine what the resource concern of each field is,” he says.

But make sure you choose a cover crop with a lot of forethought and advice from others with experience. Otherwise, you may be inviting failure or added problems. “Cover crops take more management, not less,” said Mike Plumer, who died last Christmas after dedicating 50 years to soil health and farmer education. “Farmers have to learn how cover crops react on their own fields.”

Plumer advised producers to start small with cover crops – perhaps a 20 acre plot or so, before “before incorporating on the entire farm.”

Annual Ryegrass Eliminates Fragipan Scourge

Fragipan, that compacted soil preventing crop root penetration, covers an estimated 50 million acres of farmland in the eastern US.

Tillage, even deep ripping, didn’t begin to contend with the deeper compaction and layers of fragipan.

Then in the late 1990s, as the idea of no-till agriculture began to gain more attention, an Illinois farmer began to experiment with annual ryegrass to begin to contend with erosion on his hilly acreage.

Junior Upton, Jr. began with a test plot of annual ryegrass. Working with soil agronomist Mike Plumer (U. of Ill. Extension), they believed that annual ryegrass would grow well in low pH soil (like fragipan) and build organic matter because of the vast mat of roots thrown out by annual ryegrass.

He planted the grass seed after harvesting corn and then eliminated the crop a few weeks before planing corn again in the spring.  In a Farm Journal  story a few months ago, by Chris Bennett, he quoted Mike Plumer about that experience with Upton. “In just the first year of use, we saw (annual ryegrass) roots 24″ to 28″,” said Plumer. “The second year was 30″. After four years rooting, (the annual ryegrass root measurement) was at 60″ to 70″,” Plumer added. In normal fragipan, soybean roots often only reach 12″, but after five years of annual ryegrass, Plumer recorded soybean roots at 36”.

The article (click here to read the whole thing) goes on to say that after killing the annual ryegrass, the roots decay and leave a network of channels for corn or soybeans to occupy. With continuous no-till, the channels created by annual ryegrass allow corn and soybean roots to push deeper each year.

Another discovery: As root depth increases, yields also expand, as Plumer explained . “On Junior’s farm, we’ve got some fields 16 years in the making. His corn yields, before we started, were at a five-year average of 85 bu. per acre, but after six (additional) years (with annual ryegrass cover cropping), he was over 150 bu. per acre. After 10 years, he was over 200 bu. per acre, and it is all documented,” Plumer says.

And the miracle of annual ryegrass continued. As the depth of corn and soybean roots grew, Upton and Plumer measured a remarkable increase in soil nutrients being pulled from deeper soil up to service the crop. “The ryegrass went so deep and picked up phosphorus and potassium. We were doubling and tripling the phosphorus and potassium tests without making applications,” Plumer added.

Annual Ryegrass Plugging Through another Winter

While the temperatures plunge and the snow whirls, annual ryegrass top growth has been dormant for months. But under the freeze, the annual ryegrass roots continue to flourish, adding depth, girth and mass to a system that builds healthy soil in numerous ways.

Corn roots in ARG 6-06 Starkey

The depth of rooting alone is a benefit, because it opens channels in the soil profile. Those channels, next spring and summer, will allow corn roots to seek deeper veins of nutrition and moisture. Even in a dry year, corn that goes deep will continue to thrive. And, with any normal precipitation, those root channels will help the soil absorb the rainfall rather than allowing it to run off.

Annual ryegrass has an appetite for nitrogen, too, so it becomes a storehouse of nitrogen when it grows. Then, in the spring, after it is killed with herbicide (before planting corn or beans), the nitrogen stored in the residue becomes a fertilizer for the hungry corn plants. And the massive root structure of annual ryegrass, when it is killed, that mass degrades and decomposes, increasing the carbon content and organic matter in the soil, giving worms and microbiological organisms a food source.

Because of annual ryegrass’ nature to sequester nitrogen, it’s place in the crop rotation allows you to lighten up considerably on nitrogen inputs.

For more information about annual ryegrass, why it’s beneficial and how to manage it successfully as a cover crop, you can check out this free four-page management guide. Or you can click here to view a series of YouTube videos on the subject.

CTIC 2017 Report – Another Banner Year for Cover Crops – And a Double Win for You

The Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) published a 2017 report of another annual survey of people using cover crops. Here are the first paragraphs from the report:

CTIC logo

 

Following the use of cover crops, farmers reported increased yields of corn, soybeans and wheat, and improvement in the control of herbicide-resistant weeds, according to a nationwide survey. In addition, the survey of 2,012 farmers showed acreage planted in cover crops has nearly doubled over the past five years.

Survey participants—88 percent of whom use cover crops—reported that after cover crops:

  • Corn yields increased an average of 2.3 bushels per acre, or 1.3 percent;
  • Soybean yields increased 2.1 bushels per acre, or 3.8 percent;
  • Wheat yields increased 1.9 bushels per acre, or 2.8 percent.

This is more confirmation about how cover crops are profitable. The bigger bottom line, however, is that the acreage on which we draw our income is becoming more healthy as a result of planting cover crops.

Here’s the website where you can view and download the entire study.

More Coverage – CTIC/SARE Report on Cover Crops

Since the first annual report issued by CTIC and SARE about usage of cover crops, in 2012, the average acreage planted in cover crops by survey respondents has more than doubled…from just over 200 acres to more than 450 this year. Click here to view the entire report.

The report said the continued rise in use of cover crops was surprising, given the low commodity prices. It suggested that motives beyond profit are in play. In fact, the report says that 86% of respondents said that soil health was the primary reason they invest in cover crops.

About 25% of the more than 2000 respondents said that cover crops are planted on most of their acreage (81 – 100%) with another 11% saying than between 60 and 80% is planted in cover crops.

More than half said that they saw soil benefits from the first year of cover crop use.

Almost 60% said they have “herbicide-resistant weeds” on their farm, and that planting cover crops helps to reduce those weeds significantly.

When asked which cover crops were most effective in controlling herbicide-resistant weeds, most said “mixes” of cover crops, which all contain annual ryegrass. The second most popular response was annual ryegrass itself.