(Don’t miss the video attached to this post about the program and Deerfield Farms Service participation in it.)
The program started in 2014 with 20 farmers. In 2015, 20 more farmers were added and every year for the next five years, 20 more will be added across the Midwest, with fields ranging from 20 to 80 acres.
The Soil Health Partnership is being administered by the National Corn Growers Association, with funding from Monsanto, United Soybean Board and the Walton Family Foundation.
The SHP held a field day at Deerfield Farms Services in Deerfield, Ohio Sept. 10 to discuss the new initiative.
Nick Goeser, Soil Health Partnership director, said the goal is to measure the economic and environmental benefits of different soil management strategies.
Then, from the data collected, the partnership can provide a set of regionally-specific recommendations to farmers.
“Everything we do is based in science,” said Goeser.
Deerfield Farms is one of two Ohio farms involved in the program. The farm has devoted a 30-acre field with eight test strips in it, including vertical tillage strips and no-till strips. Soybeans were planted in the field this spring.
In the vertical tillage strips, the farm is not using cover crops. In the no-till strips, cover crops are being implemented. Data from soil tests will be compiled over five years to see if the changes in tillage and the use of cover crops have impacted the soil health and yields.
The goal in the end is simple for Deerfield Farms: To find out if cover crops are worth the cost.
“I’m a numbers guy. I want to know if it’s worth my time,” said John Wallbrown, co-owner of Deerfield Farms. “I believe we have to take care of our soil. I also believe that cover crops may help, but I need the data.”
Still, he realizes his farm has to consider the conservation practice, even if puts a negative number on the net profits at times.
He added there needs to be a measure beyond yields to find out if the soil health is getting better.
The partnership members agree any measurement has to reflect basic economics — including the cost of management beyond the cover crop seed costs and the extra tillage needed. For example, some farmers have a problem with annual ryegrass that wouldn’t terminate once sprayed. It took spraying the ryegrass three times before it would die, which meant extra cost.
There is also a concern that if a ryegrass cover crop is planted, then an insect issue can develop because corn is technically a grass and, if the insects like the ryegrass, they may stay for the corn crop.
Deerfield Farms is planting about 300 acres of cover crops a year, out of the 3,000 total acres planted.
Wallbrown said it’s a challenge for the farm to get cover crops planted in the fall. He said one thing is the time element (getting them planted prior to the frost date after the corn and soybeans have been harvested) and the second is the equipment needed to get the cover crops planted and established before the frost date.
Like Deerfield Farms, many operations are still apprehensive about the use of cover crops, which takes additional management and planning.
Plans need to be created for the crop rotations and herbicide rotations. Farmers also need to consider hybrid and variety maturities when deciding when and what to plant in the fields.
Cover crop benefits
However, Rob Vanscoy, of LaCrosse Seed, said cover crops are necessary because they stimulate microbial activity. By using cover crops, the plants generate roots and, in return, trigger more microbial activity.
This also means reduced soil erosion, sequestering nutrients, breaking up soil compaction, fixing nitrogen and building organic matter.
Vanscoy agreed that planting the cover crops seeds in time is the biggest hurdle for farmers. However, he added that many farmers are overcoming the obstacle by being creative, and suggested interseeding into an existing crop with something like crimson clover or annual ryegrass because both tolerate the shade.
Other ideas included a seeder mounted onto the combine, which uses air pressure to push the seed down through the tubes and into the ground. Other options include aerial seeding or even using a drone.
Vanscoy said the benefits to cover crops are clear, it’s just a matter of farmers figuring how to get the job done and making sure the farm still makes a profit.
The Soil Health Partnership is searching for one or two Ohio cooperators to participate in the program in 2016. Contact the National Corn Growers Association by calling Nick Goeser at 636-733-9004 ext. 132 or email him at email@example.com.