ROCHESTER, Ind. — The message when 30-40 Fulton County farmers met for breakfast was simple: Cover crops are a farm management tool that can improve soil and increase yield. And when combined with no-till, the results are even better.
Fulton County extension educator Mark Kepler, who served as moderator for the roundtable discussions, estimated the attendees operate a total of at least 20,000 acres.
"Think about it," he said. "The land was building up for 10,000 years before settlers came 200 years ago and began tearing up the soil, exposing organic matter to air. The carbon just goes ‘poof’ into the air and disappears."
He suggested going into a woods and picking up a handful of soil. "It breaks into chunks," he pointed out. "Soil that has been tilled loses its strength because it no longer is held together with fungi, insects, excretions, protozoa and bacteria. "When you combine no-till with a cover crop, it takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the soil as organic matter. You get increased yields and the soil benefits. It’s a win-win situation."
Mike Norman, chair of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, has been combining cover crops with no-till for several years. "A couple of years ago I had a 40-acre field of alfalfa," he said, "and I decided to run a test. I plowed half of it with a moldboard plow, used Roundup to kill the other half and then used no-till. No-till beat the plowed half by 15 bushels an acre."
According to literature from USDA, there are four ways to improve soil health: disturb the soil as little as possible; grow many different species of plants through rotations and a diverse mixture of cover crops; plant cover crops around harvest to keep living roots growing in the soil for as much of the year as possible; or keep the soil surface covered with residue year-round.
That was a wake-up call to those who remember driving around the countryside with their fathers to see who had done the best job of plowing under cornstalks, planting in rows that allowed for easy cultivation and even those whose fall plowing left fields exposed for the winter. It was clear times have changed; practices once valued no longer are viable.
In fact, Dan Rosswurm, the district conservationist, described tillage like "crack" to soil organisms because the added oxygen cranks their consumption into high gear. Depending on the cover crop used and application method employed, the cost per acre can run about $35 an acre, according to Art Gudas. Both he and Norman feel it is well worth the expense and will pay off in harvest.
Most of the farmers present use radishes, crimson clover and annual rye. Radishes are good, according to Kepler, because they send deep roots that create channels for water to get to the roots of corn. "They’re natural subsoilers," he added.
For those beginning to use cover crops, Kepler recommends radishes and oats: "They die and there’s no need to kill them in the spring."
Another USDA flyer added to the need for soil improvement by stating: "There are more individual organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth; thus, the soil is controlled by these organisms."