Kellie Blair, a participant in the Practical Farmers of Iowa cover crops boot camp, continues to look for ways that the cover crops can improve their soil health and as a feed stock for their cattle. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)
Cover crop bootcamp covers the basics for farmers
December 17, 2020 | Heather Lilienthal
Jack Boyer has been working with cover crops in his operation for more than a decade. Each year, he continues to learn and evolve the practice to improve his acres. It’s why he was one of many Midwest farmers who participated in a recent Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) virtual cover crop bootcamp event this month, listening to sessions led by farmers and university researchers. The Iowa Soybean Association supported the event.
“I tried cover crops on 50 acres ten years ago and I liked what I saw,” explained the Reinbeck-area farmer. “I was motivated to protect my soil as I raised my cash crops.”
Throughout the years, he’s seen improvements in organic matter, reductions in nitrogen moving through his tile, and even yield strengthening in his corn acres. Those successes only motivate him to learn more.
“I want to learn what others are doing and broaden my perspective,” says Boyer. “And the more I learn, the more questions I have. I appreciate those who step forward to keep that cycle going.”
The PFI two-day event dug into all things cover crops, including soil health, suppressing weeds, and grazing cover crops.
“We paired academic researchers and professionals with a farmer as session leaders and we’re pleased with how that worked,” said Lydia English, PFI strategic initiatives coordinator. “The goals was not only for the presenters to share their experiences, but also for participants to learn from each other.”
Learning from peers
The sessions also featured breakout rooms, allowing farmers and speakers to network and learn from each other. Teresa Middleton, ISA field services manager, participated in the event and said everyone, whether they had a well-established cover crop plan or were new in process, were eager to learn from each other.
“The attendees who were new seemed very eager to learn from more experienced farmers about the nuts and bolts of how they make things work, the economics, and where things can go wrong,” said Middleton. “Another topic that was covered was the involvement of landlords in the process, which has come up in some of the other events I’ve attended this year.”
ISA is working with PFI regarding cover crops research, from on-farm trials to a grant program encouraging cover crop-related businesses.
Ruth McCabe, conservation agronomist with Heartland Cooperative in the Middle Cedar Watershed, and Rob Stout, a Washington County farmer, teamed up to discuss weed suppression. She had a simple rule for farmers working with cover crops.
“Plan your cover crop the way you plan a cash crop,” she announced. “The more time you put into planning, the better your experience overall is going to be working with cover crops.”
Rob Stout, who farms in Washington County, shared his experiences with weed suppression and cover crops in his soybean and corn rotation. Stout has seen continued increased weed control over his acres. “We use to have marestail on every field, but have zero marestail now after four or five years of cover crops,” he said.
Kellie Blair farms near Dayton has been working with cover crops on her farm’s acres for many years. Weeds continue to be a concern.
“We are focused on getting our covers in ahead of our non-GMO seed beans in order to keep ourselves ahead regarding weed control,” she said.
Important role of research
Blair and her husband, AJ, are grazing their cattle herd on their cover crops and seeking more research in the practice.
“It’s a great economic and environmental benefit,” she said. “But we want to keep learning how to make it work better, for us and our livestock. In the next year, we want to get our covers out before getting our cattle out to graze and get enough for them.”
PFI has been doing on-farm research into the economics of cover crop grazing for five years now, working with integrated crop and livestock farmers in the North Raccoon River Watershed. Looking at various costs, including labor and seeding, from fall 2018 to spring 2019 grazing, PFI determined an average profit of $90 an acre due to savings on hay costs. Meghan Filbert, PFI livestock program manager, said their research shows grazing livestock has the potential to put money back in farmers’ pocket in the same year of planting those cover crops.
Boyer, who doesn’t even have livestock, found the information insightful.
“It’s enlightening to know that these cover crops can offer a range of benefits for Midwest farmers and if I can share those tidbits to my livestock counterparts, that helps in the overall desire to improve soil health and water quality with the possibility of more acres of cover crops,” said Boyer.
The PFI recorded event can be viewed at www.practicalfarmers.org.