For thousands of years, farmers have used cover crops to help manage pests, reduce weeds, improve rainfall capture and enrich soil health. In addition to all of those benefits, today, there is renewed interest in using cover crops as a modern farming practice to help reduce carbon emissions.
“Cover crops have been somewhat limited in adoption with about 3% of farmers utilizing them, but we are seeing a lot of interest these days,” said Mike Lohuis, Monsanto’s Director of Ag Environmental Strategy. “It’s not easy for a farmer to go from not using cover crops to full adoption so I think the practice is something that farmers want to try out on some of the more challenging acres of their farm.”
Interest in cover crops are growing more rapidly in parts of Ohio and Indiana because of nutrient management issues, in Kentucky to mitigate soil erosion and in the Chesapeake Bay region where incentives were put in place to promote cover crop adoption. Lohuis says that getting started with the implementation of cover crops should utilize a crawl before you run mentality and he recommends using local knowledge and expertise, such as universities, government agencies and seed companies to find out what the correct cover crop to use for a particular situation and set long-term goals for using cover crops.
Another reason for an uptick in cover crop interest today is their possible role in reducing carbon emissions.
“A recent study by ICF International showed that cover crops have a very large potential with over 100 million metric tons of carbon emission reduction attainable across the U.S. agriculture system,” Lohuis said. “That could mean somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 kilograms to over a ton of greenhouse gas reduction per acre per year.”
One way that Monsanto is hoping to expand the interest in cover crop use is with the Soil Health Partnership, which is a joint venture project with the National Corn Growers Association. The ultimate goal of the Soil Health Partnership is to measure and communicate the economic and environmental benefits of different soil management strategies, and provide a set of regionally specific, data‑driven recommendations that farmers can use to improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms.
“This program is incredibly important to demonstrating the use of cover crops, reduced tillage or no-till on actual farms,” Lohuis said. “The participating farmers can see first-hand, the actual results with soil conditions, what happens to water quality and what happens to the bottom line.”
That concept is being put into action in Northwest Ohio on the farm of Ryan Sanders in Edon, who has been using cover crops in one form or another for about eight years.
“The Soil Health Partnership is a long-term commitment on our end as we will test cover crops and their impact on the soil versus no cover crops,” Sanders said. “We have those strip trials broken out into several different zones and plan to be a part of the project for five years and maybe longer.”
The unique aspect of these cover crop trials being done inside of a real farm scenario makes it easier for nearby farmers who are curious about the practice to ask questions to their peers and get real results and data.
“Everyday someone will ask me what I am getting out of the use of cover crops,” Sanders said. “My answer is that planting them does come at a cost and using cover crops has to be worth more than just the feel good aspect of bettering your soils, so at the end of the day it has to earn more bushels too.”
One of the main reasons that Sanders got involved with the Soil Health Partnership is that it will turn all of his data into yield data on his strips and really show what the long-term impacts will be environmentally and economically.
“The partnership allowed us to set up our trials the way that would work best for our farm and we took the simple is better approach,” Sanders said. “The program has created a really nice network of farmers and has also involved some heavy hitters that are looking deeper into the sustainability and soil health as a piece of the puzzle.”
Being a part of the Soil Health Partnership also puts farmers like Sanders on the front line of the cover crop conversations as he shares how he does, why he does it and the results he is seeing from their use. It also gives him a platform to share his advice to farmers who are looking into starting a cover crop regimen.
“The first piece of advice I would give is to have patience and flexibility,” Sanders said. “I don’t want to claim to be an expert because I am not. I have gained my knowledge by using cover crops on my own farm, by going to the same meetings as many other farmers to learn more about cover crops and by always visiting with those that are experts to glean more information every chance I get.”
Figuring out how cover crops will work with everything from your herbicide programs to your fertility programs is key and Sanders says that the first thing farmers need before starting a cover crop program is an open mind.
“You’re not going to be successful if you just put out 20 acres of radishes and don’t see any immediate results because we’re talking about building soils that have been farmed for decades,” Sanders said. “Farmers have always had a long-term vision and I think that is why a cover crop system will work for many of the folks ready to give them a shot.”