By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff.
With the restrictions from COVID-19, the Ohio No-till Council made the decision to change their traditional summer field days to a virtual format. Bart Johnson of Ohio’s Country Journal and the Ohio Ag Net moderated a panel discussion focused no-till and cover crops, and highlighting the steps to effectively incorporate cover crops into a multi-crop rotation.
Video’s of the event can be viewed at: https://www.ocj.com/2020/08/virtual-ohio-no-till-event-now-online/
Incorporating cover crops into a no-till program is the next progressive step many farmers are taking to improve their soil health and the environment. “I am in the last year transitioning into taking over my grandfather’s farm outside of Fremont. I came back to the farm in 2015, after getting my Master’s Degree in Agronomy from Purdue University,” said Martha Winters. “We started to incorporate cover crops on the farm when I came back in 2015, and have been increasing acres since then. My grandfather had been no-tilling soybeans since the 1980’s. He started strip-tilling his corn in 2006 and incorporating fertilizer with the strip-till. He got away from tillage as soon as he could. We have some sandy soils prone to erosion due to wind, and cover crops help to reduce the wind erosion.”
When considering adding cover crops, it is necessary to analyze a farm and consider the total picture, and overall goal. “Environmentally, cover crops are a good thing,” said Cody Bird. “Economically however, it does have a cost, and takes a commitment. I think when a farmer makes that decision to use cover crops, they should start small. It is a learning experience, and if something goes wrong, they can learn from it, and not get hurt on their entire operation. They can learn from it, make changes, and improve as they use them on more acres.”
The biggest challenges for farmers incorporating cover crops, are as diverse as the farmers themselves. “I think the biggest challenge can be the mindset,” said Bird. “Let’s face it, if it is something new, and they have been farming differently and been successful at that, changing what has been working is difficult.”
Crop rotation can also be an issue. “Our biggest challenge has been due to our corn-soybean rotation, there is not a lot of time in the fall to get a cover crop established after harvest,” said Winters. “Sometimes I don’t feel we get as big of a benefit because we are often limited to just planting rye because a cover crop species mix will not have time to get established.” Yoder agrees that crop rotation can cause challenges, and using rye may not be as good as a cover crop species mix, but rye is really good for developing roots. “Cereal Rye does not take much time to get established, and unless a farmer has wheat, or a really early variety of corn or soybeans that can be harvested early, several mixes may not be successful,” said Yoder. “Rye overwinters well, and picks back up in the spring. What rye does a really good job at is producing roots, and the growing crop and roots increase the microbes in the soil, and improve overall soil health. The growing cover crop scavenges nutrients in the soil, so they are not carried off by heavy rain events. Those nutrients can then be available for a later crop.
Large rain events have become more common in recent years, and yet at the same time, seasonal drought can also be an issue. The soil’s water holding capacity has gained more attention with an increased focus on water quality and nutrient management. Consideration is also given to a soil’s ability to hold water in order to be plant available during dry periods. Improved soil health is a key to both. “A one percent increase in your soil organic matter increases your water holding capacity by 25,000 gallon per acre,” said Yoder. “That’s water available to the crops in a dry spell. There are multiple benefits to improving soil quality and soil health with cover crops. The cover crops reduce nutrient loss by scavenging the nutrients and holding them to be released for the following crop. The increase in roots improve soil quality and microbial life, and increases the soil organic matter which in turn holds more water, reducing the amount to be lost after a large rain event and carry away nutrients, but it also holds it for the crop when a dry period occurs.”