Corn farmers fund research to help overcome obstacles to cover crops in Minnesota

It took a lot of experimenting before Bryan Biegler finally found success with cover crops on his farm near Lake Wilson in southwest Minnesota.

“We’re just now finding our spot with cover crops,” Biegler said. “We’re experimenting with different equipment and seeing what works for us.”

When it comes to cover crops, there are a lot of Minnesota farmers out there like Biegler. They see the soil fertility and water quality benefits cover crops provide, but struggle to make them work in Minnesota’s cold climate and short growing season.

Farmer-funded research

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association (MCGA) is working to change that. Using funds from Minnesota’s corn check-off, MCGA invests in research that seeks to make cover crops a more realistic and feasible option for all Minnesota corn farmers.

“Corn farmers have invested heavily in recent years to expand and improve on the many conservation practices available to protect water quality and soil fertility,” said MCGA Executive Director Dr. Adam Birr. “When it comes to cover crops, we’re working to determine which regions and under what conditions and cropping systems they’re most effective.”

What are cover crops?

Cover crops are planted in fields to “protect” the soil post-harvest. Generally, cover crops are most effective when planted after small grains and canning crops that are harvested earlier in the season. MCGA research is examining ways to improve cover-crop use in fields where traditional row crops such as corn or soybeans are planted.

“We want to make sure farmers are using cover crops on lands where they’re most effective,” said Dr. Paul Meints, MCGA Research Director. “And if a cover crop isn’t feasible, our research helps farmers better understand alternative conservation practices that can achieve results similar to cover crops.”

The benefits of cover crops include increasing organic matter in the soil, potential for reducing the amount of commercial fertilizer needed for the following year’s crop, significantly cutting soil erosion from wind and rain, increasing a field’s natural fertility, and suppressing weeds and insects.

Examples of cover crops include perennials like alfalfa or fall planted materials like oats, winter peas, radish or rye. In Minnesota, fall planted cover crops are typically planted late in the growing season, often after the corn or soybean field has been harvested.

A rye cover crop growing in one of Bryan Biegler's corn fields.

A rye cover crop growing in one of Bryan Biegler’s corn fields.

Some farmers attempt to plant cover crops by flying on seed into standing crops, but establishment is heavily dependent on weather and rainfall. Whether Mother Nature cooperates enough to get a cover crop established or not, the costs farmers incur to plant a cover crop remain. Cover crops are more widely used in southern states because of their warmer fall temperatures.

“Minnesota farmers are often still harvesting after a killing frost,” Meints said “That’s why it’s challenging to make cover crops work up here.”

Timing is also important because farmers don’t want the newly established cover crop to interfere with fall harvest of the standing crop. Because farmers have only a short amount of time to establish cover crops before Minnesota’s cold winter kicks in and the snow starts flying, using cover crops is much more complicated than it appears.

Future of cover crops

MCGA has supported several field plots throughout the state where researchers gather data on cover crops. On-farm demonstration sites and experimentation also helps determine what works and what doesn’t work. As research efforts progress and data is collected, the path for making cover crops more successful in Minnesota will become clearer.

“We’re seeing advancements in technology and new programs that are moving cover crops in a more mainstream direction here in Minnesota,” said Jodi DeJong-Hughes, a U of M Regional Extension Educator who works on several soil health and water quality projects in partnership with MCGA. “Farmers are developing a better understanding of the benefits of cover crops, but feasibility remains an issue. That’s why continued research is so important. Minnesota’s farmland is diverse. We need to keep working to find what works best in certain regions, whether that’s cover crops or alternative conservation practices.”

Nearly 60 participants gathered on Biegler’s farm for a National Corn Growers Association Soil Health Partnership field day in September. The farmers and agency officials in the audience learned more about Biegler’s efforts to make cover crops work on his farm, and the soil health benefits he’s enjoyed because of cover crops.

“Nothing in farming is easy, including cover crops,” Biegler said. “But farmers have shown over the years that when they invest time and money into something, progress is made. We’re making progress on cover crops and I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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