Program helps plant cover crops

Locally led conservation programs — they’re what Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors dedicate their time and talents to. SWCDs are governed by five publicly elected volunteer board members, or supervisors, as they are sometimes called. They set the direction for the district based on that county’s conservation needs.

The Holmes SWCD aerial cover crop program is an example of how a locally-led program went from an idea to conservation on the ground.

Farmers for the most part understand the benefits of sowing cover crops after harvest. Most have attended meetings or read various articles about how cover crops minimize soil erosion, improve soil structure, increase water infiltration, reduce compaction, suppress weeds, fix nitrogen and so on.

Problem

Agronomists and conservationists strongly encourage farmers to plant cover crops. But during a 2009 Holmes SWCD board planning session, concern about the increasing amount of noticeable erosion in corn silage and soybean fields led to the conclusion that cover crops weren’t being planted regularly.

Even among board members, they realized that while they totally bought into the concept, it wasn’t always getting done. So the discussion turned to, why not?

Idea

Our board’s experience was that time constraints and the availability of seed at a reasonable price were barriers to seeding cover crops. If the harvest was late, the growing season ran out before cover crops could get established. Or the manure storage needed to be emptied before winter set in and that took priority.

The discussion turned to whether there was an opportunity for the SWCD to provide a program that took the time and management out of planting cover crops. The board decided to establish an aerial application program targeting cover crops on corn silage and soybean ground.

Flying on seeds is not a new idea, but hadn’t been done in Holmes County for many years. By combining acres and coordinating the program through the SWCD office, there was enough acreage to get a reasonable price on aerial application and bulk seed.

Cost

The board had sold some no-till equipment so they took the proceeds from that to offer an incentive to farmers to cover the cost of aerial application ($7 an acre), up to 200 acres. The farmers were responsible for the seed cost plus the additional .07/pound charged by the pilot.

Farmers simply had to meet with SWCD staff to mark on an aerial map which fields were to be flown and cover crop of choice. That was it for the farmer’s involvement, other than paying the bill.

Board members donated equipment and time to get the seed to the airport and the grain cart that loaded the plane full. It took two and a half days of dawn to dusk flying to seed about 2000 acres.

Involvement

Sixteen farmers participated, either by buying seed and drilling it themselves or buying seed and having it flown. A total of 1583 acres of oats, 766 acres of rye and 233 acres of rye grass were seeded for a total of 2,582 acres and 235,039 pounds of seed.

At an average soil loss of 1.5 ton/acre on bare ground, that translates to 3,873 tons of soil saved through this program in one year! Holmes SWCD was awarded a 2010 Ohio EPA 319 grant in the Paint Creek watershed to continue the program.

Participation for 2010 looks comparable to 2009, and the aerial application is tentatively scheduled for the week of August 23. The board and staff learned a few lessons from last year and expect an even more successful program this year.

This is just one example of the conservation programs going on in every soil and water conservation district in Ohio and in the U.S. What conservation needs are on your farm or in your county? Contact your local SWCD office for assistance or give them your ideas.

About the Author

Michelle Wood is the program administrator for the Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District. She is a graduate of Mount Union College with a degree in communications, and has been involved in natural resources and agriculture throughout her career. More Stories by Michelle Wood

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