Written by Jonathan Eisenthal
Dozens of farmers recently spent the day trading their cover crop experiences and other soil health techniques at a field day event hosted by the Pipestone Soil and Water Conservation District. The setting was the Pipestone farm of Ian Cunningham, who uses cover crops as one element in a five-part pursuit of healthy soil.
On his farm, Cunningham keeps soil covered for as much of the year as possible, aiming for minimal soil disturbance when using different cultivation techniques. He also leaves residue to cover both the soil and contribute to biological activity, incorporates a range of different crops into the landscape, and keeps a 150-head cow-calf herd grazing on a different section of his 800-acre farm each year.
“You keep the ground ‘armored’ or covered as much as possible, so that when you’ve got that raindrop coming in at 100 miles per hour, it’s going to land on something other than soil, and then it enters the soil at a more reasonable speed,” says Cunningham.
Laura Debeer works with six counties in southwest Minnesota as a Regional Water Resources Specialist focusing on nutrient management. She notes the Department of Agriculture emphasizes the 4 Rs: right time, right placement, right rate and right form of nitrogen fertilizer. But when those aren’t effective and farmers seek out alternative management techniques, cover crops can be very effective.
“Cover crops are another tool in the toolbox,” says DeBeer, one of the organizers of the field day event.
A common theme of the field day event was defining your purpose when working with cover crops. A farmer with a well-defined set of goals can select the right mix of cover crop species to achieve those goals. Some plants are especially suited to grazing livestock. Winter rye is especially good for weed control.
“It’s good to be reminded that with the many uses and benefits of cover crops, they can also be specifically utilized for surface and ground water protection,” says DeBeer.
Cover crops help protect water quality by not only keeping the soil covered, but by also helping keep nutrients in surface layers where they can then be utilized by the next crop and not migrate below the root zone, she said.
Cunningham just finished a stint as president of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and has now joined the executive board of the National Association of Conservation Districts. Cunningham has watched the growing interest among farmers in using cover crops to help meet their production and conservation goals.
“Soil health is nationwide,” Cunningham says. “More people are adopting these practices all the time. It is still a relatively small number of the total acres, but there is a lot of interest in it, and a lot of people are moving in that direction. Especially with the current prices, any time you can improve yields while controlling costs, that’s attractive.”