Well, the groundhog indeed saw his shadow yesterday, so we are in for six more weeks of cold weather. While the temperatures outside were certainly brisk, it was a great day to be inside learning some new perspectives on cover crop management, soil health, and even earthworms!
I was invited to be a part of a Cover Crop & Soil Health Field Day in Houghton yesterday, put on by the Lower Skunk River Watershed & Soil Health Initiative. Approximately 55 farmers, landowners, crop advisors, and NRCS staff from across southeastern Iowa and northeastern Missouri gathered together to spend the morning digging in with cover crops and soil health issues.
Dave Otte, of Green Valley Seed (Kahoka, MO) kicked things off by sharing his experiences with cover crops over the years, both in corn/soybean farming systems and as a “cattle guy.” He explained the many different benefits that he’s seen with cover crops, including soil health and quality (feeding the biology under the ground surface), water control (promoting infiltration), erosion control, moderating soil temperatures, nutrient management (creating, capturing, holding, and releasing fertility), weed suppression, and forage. He was also very open in discussing the challenges with cover crops, but emphasized that the benefits are well worth it. We were quite entertained by his analogy that cover crops are a lot like marriage. As he put it, “I’ve been married 40 years, and there have certainly been ups and downs. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives!” I liked how he emphasized that going with cover crops will make you THINK more – rethinking your farm management in a positive way.
Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension field agronomist in south central Iowa, was up next, helping the attendees think ahead to creating a game plan for cover crop termination in advance of planting in the spring. She shared a number of different termination options, ranging from mechanical means (like mowing, rolling, or roller-crimping) to chemical means (herbicide). It was very interesting to hear her discuss data from the University of Missouri Weed Science program regarding the effectiveness of different herbicides on different cover crops, and how much that effectiveness can vary with termination date. Lots of food for thought!
After a short break, NRCS soil scientist Jason Steele shared his wealth of knowledge on all things soil health, offering perspectives on what exactly soil health is, improvements in soil organic matter that can be realized with practices like no-till and cover crops, and the benefits of increasing water infiltration across our landscape. He also performed the Slake test, demonstrating aggregate stability and how healthy soils are “glued together” biologically.
Steele also offered some great analogies about how cover crops fit into our farming operations … “Cover crops are a lot like small children. For those of you that have small children (or have raised kids), you know that it takes patience and it takes time.”
And regarding earthworms and soil health, “It’s a lot like the movie Field of Dreams … ‘If you build it, they will come’ … well, with earthworms, they’re probably close by in your fencerows. If you make them a home, they will come!”
That was a great transition, because I concluded the learning portion of the field day by sharing findings from our ILF study of earthworm populations related to cover crops! I highlighted the fact that we found 38% more nightcrawlers in corn/soybean fields with a cereal rye cover crop compared to those without, and how earthworms can serve as a tangible, early biological indicator of soil health. There were also questions earlier in the day about tenant/landowner relationships regarding the implementation of cover crops, so I also promoted our new Talking With Your Tenant publication series which offers tips for starting that conversation, as well as ways to potentially share the cost of implementing a conservation practice like this.
While we are certainly still very much in the throes of winter, take a look at these beautiful cover crops that I spotted while journeying through southeastern Iowa yesterday (Feb. 2)! I’ll leave you with a few photographs from just south of Swedesburg in Henry County.