Minnesota farmer works to plant cover crops while side-dressing nitrogen fertilizer

This is the type of cover crop Keith Hartmann will be working to establish while side-dressing nitrogen on his farm in Nicollet County.

This is the type of cover crop Keith Hartmann will be working to establish while side-dressing nitrogen on his farm in Sibley County.

Spend a few minutes visiting with Keith Hartmann, a 27-year-old, fourth-generation family farmer in Gibbon, Minn., and his passion for agriculture and clean water quickly becomes apparent. Hartmann is using that passion to move forward on a unique project that he hopes will make cover crops a more realistic option for farmers in Minnesota’s chilly climate.

By mid-June, Hartmann plans to have a piece of equipment ready that will plant cover crops while side-dressing nitrogen fertilizer, all in one pass through the field. Hartmann is using $7,000 through the Minnesota Corn Growers Association’s (MCGA) new Conservation Innovation Grant program to help make the project happen.

“It will allow farmers to seed cover crops with a high success rate and encourage, if they aren’t already, an in-season, split nitrogen application,” Hartmann said. “What better visual for the public to see than green, lush plants growing in the fall when everything else is brown and dying?”

MCGA started its Conservation Innovation grant program to help farmers like Hartmann test or develop an innovative or best practice to improve nitrogen management and protect water quality. A total of $39,000 was awarded to six Minnesota farmers.

Hartmann is in the process of building a 12-row, 30-inch row spacing cover crop interseeder that applies in-season liquid nitrogen, all in a single pass. After the nitrogen is applied and cover crop seeded sometime around mid-June, Hartmann will monitor yields and also perform nitrogen tests on the corn stalk to determine if the cover crop is competing for nitrogen with the corn plants.

“I want to find a way to make cover crops successful in Minnesota,” Hartmann said. “We often don’t have enough time after harvest to get them established.”

After the growing season, Hartmann will test to see how much nitrogen the cover crop is holding over for the following growing season.

The project is an expansion of a smaller-scale prototype Hartmann has been working on through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Nutrient Management Initiative. MDA and the USDA Natural Resource & Conservation Service are also contributing funding to the expansion.

Overcoming obstacles to cover crops in Minnesota would provide another tool to help farmers better protect area water quality. Hartmann sees his project as having the potential to make an impact on individual fields, and in the overall state of Minnesota’s waterways.

“We are the land of 10,000 Lakes, the start of the Mississippi River, and a border state to the largest body of fresh water in the United States and that equals a bull’s-eye on the back of each Minnesota farmer,” Hartmann said. “We have become an easy target when the topics of water quality and pollution arise. Farming, unlike many other businesses, is very open. The public can visually see our day-to-day operations. They see us broadcasting nitrogen fertilizer, tilling the soil black and baron, and read the headlines ‘Nitrates Are Leaching Into Our Waters.’ With those visuals in their mind, farmers are their first thought responsible for the contamination.

“While that may or may not be the actual source, farmers react by continuing to do the same practice year after year. Not because they don’t care about the environment or simply ignore it, but because alternative practices haven’t been proven and margins are too tight to risk a failure. That is why my project is important. I want to be proactive and explore new ways of farming and show other farmers that yes, we can successfully integrate cover crops into our Minnesota row crop systems.”

Be sure to check MinnesotaCornerstone.com in the coming weeks for additional feature stories on Conservation Innovation Grant recipients.

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