Holmes Co. aerial cover crop program takes off

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Cover crops can help farmers manage soil, weeds and pests. (Farm and Dairy file pic).

By Laurie Sidle  | Contributing writer

Twelve years ago, Tim Brumme helped get the aerial cover crop program off the ground in Holmes County, and it’s been flying high ever since.

During this year’s event in early September, the former Holmes Soil and Water Conservation District board member brought his young daughter Kylee to watch the yellow and blue planes fly in and out of the Holmes County Airport. The planes from Fisher Ag Services, in Cardington, dropped oats, barley and rye seeds, or a mixture of them, on about 3,000 acres in Holmes and Wayne counties for the program that Brumme said “has benefits too numerous to count.”

Benefits

“Soil health is the biggest benefit overall,” he said.

The cover crops, planted in soybean and cornfields not yet harvested, stop erosion and retain moisture and nutrients in the soil.

“By preserving the soil and the nutrient base,” Harold Neuenschwander, Holmes SWCD board chairman, said, “you can increase your production of bushels per acre.”

Karen Gotter, the district’s watershed coordinator for Killbuck Creek, called the aerial cover crop program “a great partnership” between the SWCD, Ohio Department of Agriculture and Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.

How it works

Working with SWCD staff, Ohio Department of Agriculture administers the program and the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District funds it. Participating farmers receive cost-share funding on a maximum of 200 acres, but many farmers have more acreage seeded, Gotter said.

Also, many farmers participate regardless of whether they qualify for funding. The cost share reduces the price to the farmer from $35 an acre to between $12 and $20 per acre. The price covers the cost of the seed and pilot time.

In funding the aerial cover crop program, not only does the MWCD get to partner with SWCD, but it’s fulfilling its mission to promote soil conservation, soil health and water quality, said Brad Janssen, chief of conservation for the MWCD.

The MWCD operates in 18 counties, and the aerial crop program is in all, or parts of, 17 of those counties.

“It’s really great to see the results of the program and how the agricultural community benefits,” Janssen said.

The rule of thumb for scheduling the aerial seeding is when the soybeans start to turn yellow, indicating the leaves will be falling off. Having a cover crop in place when the soybeans are harvested, helps keep the dust down, said Nashville farmer Timothy Sage, who had 150 acres of soybeans seeded through this year’s aerial program.

“We’ve seen incredible things as far as soil quality from the program,” Gotter said.

For example, SWCD staff district perform a fun demonstration for students in which they bury a cotton T-shirt in a field that has benefitted from a cover crop. When they dig up the shirt, she said, “it’s completely dissolved except for a little bit of nylon thread. This indicates microbial activity is happening in the soil.”

“It means the soil is alive and healthy,” Sage added.

Parry Cochran, of Wooster, seeded 250 acres of his crops through the aerial program. “I do it to get it done versus drilling it myself,” he said.”

A number of seminars he’s attended tout the benefits of cover crops, he said “and so far, I’m believing. I use cover crops for the conservation and the agronomic benefits.”

Farmers can do what they want with the cover crops, Gotter said. “The majority of them see the benefits of leaving the crop on the field because the residue helps with weed protection and provides a mulch layer that retains soil moisture.”

Some farmers harvest the cover crop for storage or chop for forage for cattle. Sage said he combined his cover crop seeded last year and was pleased with the harvest.

The aerial seeding is not perfect, Gotter said. There are missed spots and sometimes the plants don’t establish well, but it shows that farmers are “doing the best management practices that they can to help the soil.”

Success

The success of the program, she said, “motivates us to figure out how we can follow up on the success of what we’ve seen.”

It serves as a model for what could be done to benefit all landowners. “This is a way to give back to the community,” Gotter said, “because it benefits everyone whether they are a farmer or not.”

The cover crop program keeps the soil on the fields and out of roadside ditches, helping the townships. “And it’s keeping a productive agricultural community, which in turn helps the Holmes County economy.”

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