Four-inch rain in 60 minutes made Corning, Iowa, farmer believer in cover crops02/14/2019 | Crop Production Research, Soil Health, Water Quality, Soybean News, Weather
By Aaron Putze, APR, ISA communications director
For those who love to farm, strong soils are at the heart of the operation. Perhaps that’s why more farm families are growing fond of planting cover crops.
Count Ray Gaesser of Corning among them.
“Farming is all I ever wanted to do,” he told a crowd of farmers and ag stakeholders attending a Practical Farmers of Iowa meeting Feb. 4 in Ames. “To make the most of the opportunity, you need the land to work for you.
“Take care of it and it will take care of you.”
The long-time soybean industry leader and 2018 candidate for Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, Gaesser is an enthusiastic spokesperson for cover crops.
When he and his wife Elaine began farming in 1978, so, too, did their journey into conservation. They proceeded to make improvements to the land they farmed, including the adoption of no-till and the installation of terraces and grassed waterways.
But it was an afternoon in May 2010 that shaped their belief in expanding the use of cover crops.
“It was a defining moment for us and how we viewed conservation and what the potential was for planting more acres to cover crops,” said Gaesser.
On that particular day, Ray, his wife Elaine and their son Chris peered out from their farm house windows as rain drops pelted the pains and water engulfed their farmstead. In less than one hour, more than four inches of rain had fallen on already saturated soils.
“It took all of the residue that we had built up over several decades and floated it away,” Gaesser recalls. “I remember seeing the water breach one terrace and then another and then another, like it was running down stairsteps.
“We knew right then that we had to do something more to control and better manage water.”
The amount and duration of the rain event weren’t the only factors that made an impression on the Gaessers.
What should have been a once-in-a-hundred-year’s rain event quickly became a common occurrence.
“We’ve received at least one four-inch rain every year since, and one year we had three,” Gaesser said. “It was obvious to us that we had to do something different to keep the soil in place and sequester nutrients. That’s when we really got serious about increasing the number of acres planted to cover crops.”
In 2010, the Gaessers planted cereal rye on several hundred acres. By 2011, acreage increased to 450. And just four years later, nearly 3,000 acres farmed by the Gaessers was planted to cover crops.
“We have really good luck with rye,” Ray said. “It performs really well. In fact, so well that it’s more difficult to terminate than getting it established.”
The Gaessers harvest about 60 acres of cover crops in the summer and then clean the seed themselves. Managing their own seed supply reduces the cost to about $15 per acre.
“We have a can-do attitude about cover crops,” Gaesser said.
Farmers wanting to get started with cover crops should discuss it with others involved in the operation. Then, devise a plan for introducing, establishing and expanding cover crops, from planting and harvesting to termination.
With nearly 10 years of data (both scientific and anecdotal) and personal observations, Gaesser says the impact of cover crops on their farm is real and positive.
For example, the Gaessers are beginning to see stronger yields in fields that have been seeded to cover crops for several years.
“Fields planted to cover crops have better organic matter,” he says. “The cover crops also sequester nutrients, reduce soil compaction, help with weed suppression and reduce fuel usage all while improving water quality.
“And if we can eliminate just one pass for herbicides, we’ve recouped the cost of cover crops,” Gaesser said.
There are also benefits for livestock producers, Gaesser said, as cover crop forage is a plentiful and economic feed source ideal for cattle.
While farmers can’t control Mother Nature, Gaesser said the use of cover crops enables them to be more effective managers while preserving the farm’s most valuable resource.
“I love farming. I want to leave a positive legacy and the soil better for the next generation,” he said. “That means better water and making our land more resilient. Cover crops help do that.”
Contact Aaron Putze at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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