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Cover Crop Springs to Life

By Chris Hardie, as seen in The Delavan Enterprise, April 25, 2024

 

The lifeblood of any farmer is the soil that provides their livelihood, so taking care of it has to be a top priority.

 

That care involves more than simply adding fertilizer and chemicals, it’s about nurturing, building and sustaining the soil. Not just for this year, but for years to come. It’s about proper manure management, crop rotation, erosion control and preserving the precious topsoil.

 

Another important part of soil preservation is the use of cover crops, any crop grown to cover the soil that may be incorporated into the soil later for enrichment. In our part of the country, these are crops sown in the late fall and plowed under in the spring.

 

I remember well the spring days of cleaning up the winter manure piles and spreading them across the fields before planting. My father didn’t plant cover crops, it just seems like it was always a scramble just to get the corn harvested before winter set in, but he was an early supporter of no-till planting.

 

Last fall, I had one of my fields plowed up that had been in hay and grass, and lots of weeds, for many years. It was sown with winter rye at the end of October.

 

The day after the field was sown, we received 10 inches of rain. We kept the established grass waterways, but with that much rain on a bare field, I figured much of the seed had washed away.

 

I remained doubtful earlier this spring when the soil began to warm, there were only a few rye plants coming up. But instead of washing away, I think most of the seed was driven deeper into the soil, taking longer to emerge.

 

Now we have a field of green that will help suppress weeds and will provide some organic matter when it is turned under when corn is planted in a few weeks.

 

The use of cover crops is growing, according to the 2022 Census of agriculture, from 2017 to 2022, total acres of cover crops planted from 15.4 million to 18.0 million acres, a 17% increase. Cover crop acres were 10.3 million acres in 2012, the first year it was reported in the ag census.

 

Minnesota and Wisconsin ranked ninth and 10th, respectively, in the acres of cover crop planted. There were 760,423 acres planted in Minnesota, a 31% increase from 2017, and 753,926 acres planted in Wisconsin, a 24% increase. The top two states are Texas with 1.56 million acres and Iowa with 1.28 million acres.

 

According to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Educational program, cover crops increase crop yields and attract pollinators and increase soil resilience under intensive rainfall and drought conditions. Cover crops also help sequester carbon to help fight climate change.

 

According to an analysis on yield data done by SARE, farmers can expect a 3% increase in their corn yield and a 4% increase in soybeans after five consecutive years of cover crop use. In the drought year of 2012, farmers reported even greater yield increases when they used cover crops: 9.6% in corn and 11.6% in soybeans.

 

Five years ago, I interviewed Dan Foor, CEO of LaCrosse Seed, as part of a feature story on their 100th year in business. Foor said the growth of cover crops was one of the biggest changes in the past 20 years. LaCrosse Seed custom blends and packages cover crop mixes.

 

“Cover crop seeds has grown eight-fold,” Foor said in 2019. “It’s almost half of what we do.”

 

Foor attributed that growth to a heightened awareness of the part cover crops play in healthy soil.

 

“There’s an appreciation for the role of cover crops as being an investment in soil health and resilience,” Foor said. “You want to keep things growing on the soil as long as you can.”

 

It’s important to keep that lifeblood healthy and growing.

 

Chris Hardie spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and publisher. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He is a former president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Contact him at chardie1963@gmail.com

 

-- Reprinted with permission of Chris Hardie













 

 

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