Tips for Adding Cover Crops to Your Farm

Today’s post focuses another in-field conservation practices covered in the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices Manual and the great decisions trees related to cover crops!

Hands holding a clump of soil with green rye growing over a shovel

Cover crops are plant species, such as oats and cereal rye, planted to reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, and provide water quality benefits during the months of the year when crops are not actively growing on farmland. Incorporating cover crops improves soil health by:

  • Improving soil structure
  • Reducing soil compaction
  • Protecting the soil surface

Cover crops are seeded in the fall, either before or after harvest. They are not harvested as grains, but can be grazed or harvested as forage. Cover crops go hand-in-hand with no-tillage and strip-tillage.

6 Tips to Success for Starting Out with Cover Crops:

  • Oats ahead of corn
  • Cereal rye ahead of soybean
  • Selecting the seeding method that fits your system (see decision trees below)
  • Terminate 10-14 days ahead of corn and 3-7 days ahead of soybeans
  • Spring tillage of cover crops is NOT recommended
  • Adjust planter settings to higher residue system

The manual provides more detailed information on each of these tips and more, so download a FREE copy for your farm today.

Also be sure to check out our YouTube video series Cover Crops: Farmer Perspectives and Adding a Cover Crop to a Corn-Soybean System, as well as our recent webinar – Succeeding with Cover Crops & No-Till: A Guide for Spring 2020​​​​​​​ and virtual field days for more great information.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Building a Culture of Conservation – One Field Day at a Time

We are excited to announce the release of our 2019 field day evaluation report, now available online. Since 2004, we have utilized a multi-level evaluation process to gather feedback from attendees on the quality of the events, as well as information on the conservation practices they are implementing.

Highlights from this year’s report:

  • 23% of field day attendees were under age 35
  • 23% were female
  • 76% of farmers responding to surveys are using conservation practices (no-till/strip-till, cover crops, extended crop rotation, rotational grazing, prairie strips, pollinator habitat, saturated buffer and bioreactor.)

Cover crops are a key tool to helping meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy with the goal of 12 to 14 million acres statewide. Through the year-end evaluation process, we are able to create an estimate of the total acres, as well as gather data on species used and cost share usage.

Key cover crop findings:

16% growth in cover crop plantings.

Only 10% of new acres were from first time cover crop users – now a five year trend of declines of plantings from new farmers.

Cost share usage remained at 68%, while 75% of first time users reported using cost share.

Cereal rye remains the dominate species, followed by oats – 90% used rye, 21% used oats.

Reasons for implementing conservation practices varies by operation, but a new question asked respondents to identify their #1 reason from the following: variable weather, soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat, landlord stipulation, and reduce soil erosion.

Many practices that address the top two reasons, soil health and reducing soil erosion, also reduce nutrient loss. These topics bring farmers and landowners to field days, enabling reinforcement of practice value and introduction of additional approaches that can address their needs and help achieve Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals.

Field days matter!  Farmers that attend more field days are more likely to plant cover crops, network with other farmers and influence more farmers than attended the event.

While our 2020 field day season has been delayed, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date on events in your area.

Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Prepare for Crop Year 2020 by Attending a Spring Field Day

Iowa Learning Farms is hosting four spring cover crop field days. Make plans to attend one near you! RSVP today to 515-294-5429 or

March 17, Cover Crop Field Day
Agri-Tech Aviation
12871 Geneva St
Indianola, IA 50125
Warren County
Partners: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Natural Resource Conservation Service
Press Release

March 18, Cover Crop and Soil Health Field Day
Campbell Farm
2260 Hwy 30
Grand Mound, IA 52751
Clinton County
Partner: Natural Resource Conservation Service
Press Release

March 24, Cover Crop Field Day
Roger Van Donselaar Farm
511 6th Avenue West
Grinnell, IA 50112
Poweshiek County
Partners: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District
Press Release

April 9, Cover Crop Termination Field Day
Rick Juchems Farm
33635 110th St
Plainfield, IA 50666
Butler County
Partners: Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship 
*Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig will be speaking*

Liz Ripley

The New Frontier of Farming


“This is a really exciting time to be a farmer,” Jerry Dove told a large crowd during a cover crop and no-till focused workshop at his farm in Janesville on November 21st, “Soil health is the new frontier.”

Jerry DoveDove described the ways he’s been making cover crops and no-till work on his farm and his excitement was infectious. He described coming home from a no-till conference with the goal to plant green and how he planted soybeans into a 20 inch tall cereal rye cover crop. “It was a neat thing to walk around in,” he said, “It was fun to see the soybeans come through.” He then terminated the cover crop about three days after planting his beans.

He went on to explain the wonderful partnership that he sees between cover crops and no-till. “If you haven’t started no-till, you have to this year,” Dove urged after describing the improvements in soil structure and infiltration that he’s seen on his farm, “It doesn’t make any sense to beat up your field by driving over it.”

Attendees at the field day later got to compare the soil structure on the Dove farm to soil from a conventionally tilled field when a slake test was performed. The difference between Dove’s no-tilled soil and the conventionally tilled soil was immediately obvious, with Dove’s soil maintaining its aggregate stability after being submerged in water.

Slake Test Jerry Dove FD

No-till soil from Dove’s farm on the left, compared to conventionally tilled soil on the right during a slake test

Jason Gomes from North Iowa Agronomy Partners, Shaffer Ridgeway with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Elizabeth Juchems, Iowa Learning Farms, rounded out the presenters at the field day. If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops or no-till, join us at an upcoming field day near you!

Hilary Pierce

Farming for the Future

ILFHeaderDespite the cold, snowy weather we had a great turnout in Nashua last week for a cover crop and wetland field day that highlighted our ongoing Conservation Learning Lab project being conducted in Floyd and Story County.

Ben and AndyParticipating in the Floyd County site are brothers Andy and Ben Johnson. They grow corn and soybeans and manage a ewe flock and feeder lamb operation. The duo are no strangers to conservation and trying new practices. They began no-tilling soybeans over fifteen years ago and have nearly ten years of experience strip-tilling corn.

Their first experience with cover crops was in 2013 following a wet spring resulting in prevent planting acres. They turned to family farming in a nearby watershed project that had been using cover crops in the systems for advice on how to incorporate them into their farming systems as well.

In 2016, they seeded about 477 acres in the project watershed and have been impressed with the improved water infiltration when cover crops were added to their no-till and strip-till system.

Ben Johnson2

“We are able to get in the field plant and harvest 1-2 days before our neighbors due to improved water infiltration. We have maintained or improved our yields since we reduced our tillage,” stated Ben.

“On top of that, we are saving time, labor and fuel by switching to strip-till for our corn acres,” noted Andy.

When asked about changes in soil organic matter Ben responded, “Our soil is already fairly high, so we don’t see as big of changes as people that are starting with lower organic matter. Cover crops help protect soil. I don’t want to start farming a farm that is 6% (organic matter) and leave it to my kids at 4%.”

Be sure to check out this month’s Conservation Chat to hear directly from Ben and Andy. Jacqueline Comito sat down with them before the field day to discuss the project and more!

-Liz Juchems


Farming for the Future

Last night was a lovely evening to learn more about cover crops and adding conservation to lease agreements at the Fawcett Farm near West Branch. The Fawcett Family has adopted a variety of conservation practices on their farm including prairie strips and a recently installed saturated buffer. The site was a perfect backdrop for what is possible when farmers and landowners work together to keep keep the soil in place to maintain the ability to farm the land for generations to come.

IMG_5089“Organic matter is one of the best indicators of soil health,” stated Virgil Schmitt, ISU Extension Field Agronomist, who kicked off the program. ” In the long run, improved soil health improves yields as the biological processes are working better. You can’t improve soil health if you loosing soil to erosion.”

That’s where no-till and cover crops come into play! By adding a cover crop to a no-till system, organic matter is able to accumulate and the nearly continuous cover of living plants significantly reduces soil erosion.

Virgil provided some key tips for those getting started with cover crops:

  • Cereal rye before soybeans
  • Oats before corn (terminates with a hard frost and will not need to be terminated in the spring)
  • Start on a single field or portion of field
  • Pay attention to details

“Adding a cover crop can be a relatively easy process if recognized as a change in management that requires planning to increase success,” said Schmitt. There are resources like Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners with years of cover crop experience that can serve as mentors – reach out to one in your area!

IMG_5109Chris Henning, Greene County landowner, shared some advice with fellow landowners in attendance, “It’s never to early to think about succession planning. My goal is to keep Iowa beautiful for years to come and part of reaching that goal is making a plan for my land after I’m no longer making the decisions.”

Henning also stressed the importance of communication between the landowner and tenant to maintain a good working relationship that meets production and conservation goals. “When I first required cover crops on my farm, my tenant was skeptical but willing to work with them. After a couple years of seeing the benefits on my fields, he has added cover crops to his own acres and has been very pleased.”

IMG_5121If you or someone you know is looking for information on adding conservation to leases, Charles Brown, ISU Extension Farm Management Specialist, shared some great resources along with his personal experiences helping landowners and tenants work through the discussion.

“Working together is crucial to the success of the changes. If you simply tell someone they have to do it, the results may not turn out as you had hoped. Instead, sit down and have a conversation about the land and the management and get the lease agreement in writing,” shared Brown.

Brown also highlighted an important item to consider in the discussion: who pays for the cover crops. “I have seen many different payment arrangements – landowner, tenant, shared costs, longer leases. All are possible and have worked well, but it is a matter of having the discussion.”

For more information on conservation leases, visit ISU Ag Decision Maker. You can find a cover crop lease insertion from Nature Conservancy here.

We still have more field days coming up, so be sure to check out our events page to learn more and subscribe to our e-newsletter to stay in touch!

Liz Juchems

Secure your cover crop seed for fall 2019 today!


Gaesser Family

We had a great evening for a cover crop field day hosted by the Gaesser family near Corning on Tuesday, July 9th. With nearly 50 people in attendance, there was great interest in adding more cover crop acres among the experienced users and a handful of those looking to try it for the first time.

Sarah Carlson, Practical Farmers of Iowa, helped set the stage by sharing how farmers can help make cover crops pay with benefits beyond improved water quality and soil erosion reduction.

“If we want to get started and make it pay, it is best to start with a small grain like rye or oats,” commented Carlson. “In a corn/soybean rotation, legumes and brassicas are not going to get enough sunlight to justify the seed cost.”

IMG_5746For the more experienced cover crop users, Carlson recommended taking them to the next level by delaying spring termination of rye ahead of soybeans to achieve weed control benefits and reducing herbicide costs. Another suggestion was planting corn in 60 inch rows to interseed the cover crop earlier in the season to achieve more growth.


The Gaesser family has been growing their own rye seed for cover crops for the past few years as a way to control costs and improve soil and water quality on their farm.

“We grow our own cereal rye seed each year averaging between 3,000-7,000 bushels to help us cover about half of our crop acres. We like to include rye in the rotation on fields that have been a challenge before – weed pressure or erosion. Once harvested, we clean and store it for use that same year,” stated Chris Gaesser.

Having your own seed supply is a major advantage this year due to the widespread need for prevented planting seed across the Midwest.

IMG_5788“The cover crop seed surplus from 2018 has been used up already this year,” shared Bert Strayer of La Crosse Seed. “That means this year’s cover crop seed will come from what gets harvested in the next month or so. For that reason it is encouraged to get your seed orders in as soon as you can to make sure you have access to seed when you want to be seeding this fall.”

If you are looking for a seed source near you, check out the Practical Farmers of Iowa Cover Crop Business Directory.

Be sure to stay tuned to our events page for more cover crop field days later this year!

Liz Juchems