More farmers running for cover crops

Listen to this story
Click image to view slideshow
The green shoots of young cover crops come up through corn residue on a field in Boone County, Iowa. (Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media)
About the author

Amy Mayer is Harvest Public Media's reporter based at Iowa Public Radio in Ames, Iowa.

A faint green tints the field across from Jeff Longnecker’s farmhouse in Ames, Iowa.

It may be late fall, but Longnecker isn’t done growing things. The first shoots of winter rye are poking up, shorter than usual because of the drought,  but growing nonetheless.

This is a cover crop —something that goes down in late summer or fall and lives in the soil when the land would otherwise be barren.  And a growing number of farmers in the Midwest are turning to these crops — like oats and winter rye — despite the time and expense involved in growing something that won’t ever make money directly.

 Longnecker, though, has been using cover crops for about 20 years.  

“What I used it for originally was, I’d put it in in the fall and let cattle graze on it in the spring,” he said. “And that’s before they called it [a] cover crop.”

Today, corn and soybean farmers are adding a cover crop season – whether they have cattle to graze on the green or not.

Government agencies and non-profit groups have been promoting the value of cover crops for farmers and for conservation. Plant physiologist Tom Kaspar, a member of the Midwest Cover Crops Council, studies cover crops at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in Ames. He said from the time corn and soybean plants are mature, which can be a month before harvest, until the next crop is up and growing, there’s nothing taking up water and nutrients on the fields.

“We don’t have a living plant out there to protect the soil, we don’t have plants out there to support soil microbes, earthworms, etc.,” he said. By having a living plant out there, we recycle nutrients. We protect the soil from erosion.”

Farmer Jeremy Gustafson has been using cover crops for five years in Boone County, Iowa. He plants oats before corn and rye before beans.  Without a cover crop, dirt blows off dry, empty fields. His fields are spared that loss, and he said he sees real gains from using them.

“We had rye on some fields this spring that we terminated then planted beans into it,” he said, “and we’re actually seeing a yield bump in those fields right now.”

Despite Gustafson’s claim, nobody will guarantee cover crops boost yield. The research isn’t there, yet. But the research does show they’re a good long-term investment for the soil.

It takes time and money to put them in, though, and the crops’ growing popularity has caused a spike in seed prices. Mac Ehrhardt, president of Albert Lea Seed in Minnesota, has seen demand for winter rye seed expand fivefold since 2010. Until that year, the price was around $7 or $8 a bushel.

There is a knowledge barrier when it comes to cover crops, according to an Iowa survey. Click HERE to read more.

“Last year that went all the way up to $20 a bushel, so well over double,” Ehrhardt said. “And this year it again is extremely high, although not as high as last year.”

Gustafson said he’s been able to find seed at reasonable prices, but he has noticed the uptick.

There is help for farmers wanting to try cover crops.  The Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has incentive programs across the Midwest. And this fall, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship allowed counties to offer a $25 per acre reimbursement to farmers who planted cover crops. Cover crop acreage in the state has grown from 1,703 in 2008 to a projected 30,158 this year, according to the USDA.

“Just driving across the countryside you’ll see a lot more fields seeded under cover crops,” said Pat Schaefers, with the conservation service.

He said the drought gave farmers a bigger planting window between harvest and freeze-up. And the promise of keeping nitrogen in the soil — so it’s available next spring — motivates many corn and bean farmers.

For cattle ranchers like Longnecker, there was an added incentive this year. High corn prices drove up feed costs, so grazing cattle on cover crops essentially means the rye pays for itself. Plus, Longnecker sees an intangible benefit that winter rye could offer any farmer.

“I like to see it because in the spring it’s the first thing to turn green and I like to look out and see, oh, spring is here the rye’s turning green,” Longnecker said. “I like that a lot.”