A fourteen-farmer treasury of proven cover-crop experiences

"The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has captured and summarized the experiences of ten leading farmers who’re integrating cover crops into their rotations. Those reports were published as inserts in Farm Journal with Buffett's sponsorship. They're also online in the foundation's website at this address: http://harvestingthepotential.org. Here, we've assembled links to the most recent 14 cover-crop articles which are now online at the Buffett Foundation website, so you can refer to them in one convenient anthology. This is an ongoing series, so there will be new ones coming in future months. At the "Harvesting the Potential" website, click on the "Library" tab to see a wealth of permanently listed conservation reports.

October 24, 2017   By Jerry Carlson — The list below of 14 farmer experience stories are of the calibre which seasoned ag journalists call "keepers." They are direct farmer to farmer interviews loaded with usable ideas that have ready applications and lasting value. They're exceptionally well-written, in my unbiased opinion. (Well, my opinion anyway. They were written by our daughter Stephanie Larson, on a freelance basis. Stephanie's name isn't on them, but her clarity and accuracy is imprinted within them!)

The list below shows each report alphabetically by the farmer's name. The summary highlights a few key points in the full article, which typically runs two to four pages. Each reference has a link to a PDF version of the article, so you can download and read the finished piece like a magazine page. I suggest you print each one, and add them to your file (or your stack) of cover crop resources. They're handy to have in the pickup or tractor cab to read in the scarce minutes when you're waiting or resting.

1. John Agee, Agee Farms, Logan County, IL — Build Soil by Respecting Residue. Rapid residue breakdown with the Yetter Devastator and Aer-Way then strip-till and aerial seeding tillage radish.

2. Steve and Julie Berger, Wellman, IAStart at the Top. Steve sums up his five-step strategy: "Number one is to stop tilling the soil, and number two is to establish a cover crop. That leads to step three, which is increased microbial processes in the soil. That leads to step four, which is improvements in soil health. Finally, in step five, your healthier soil feeds your cash crops, which is where you get paid."

Cover crops on Hal and Ty Brown's farm

3. Hal and Ty Brown, Windy Lane Farms, Mulberry, IN — Come Wind, Come Weather. Microbial life is top priority, enhanced with an array of cover crops and minimum-disturbance tillage or no-till. Organic matter, soil health and yields are rising. Hal and Ty have many years of "biological" experience with microbial blends to upgrade soil health.

4. Cade Bushnell, Stillman Valley, IL — Student of the Soil. Cover crops capture nutrients leached out of decomposing crop residue, then releasing these nutrients just as the next year's growing crop needs them. No-till and covers are synergistic for steadily building soil humus and health with biological life.

5. Josh Cox, Wildcat Valley Farms, Lafayette, IN — Wild Oats. Protecting and enhancing soil organisms by switching from anhydrous to spoon-feeding liquid N and other nutrients through the season. Using a wide array of cover crop species; each type fosters its own range of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Resulting in: steady buildup of organic matter, higher yields and more consistent production through good seasons and stressful ones.

6. Ian Cunningham, Pipestone County, MN — Principles for Healthy Soil.  They are  (1) Disturb the soil as little as possible; (2) Keep the ground covered as much as possible; (3) Have diversity in rotation; (4) Have a living root in the soil as much as possible; and (5) Integrate livestock.

7. Don Elsbernd, Allamakee County, IAStep by Step. Don calls his cover-crop strategy a "work in progress," with a long-term goal of cost savings, soil health and yield improvement. He's adding about 200 acres a year to the cover crop program, and modifying nitrogen applications from broadcast to side-dressing. 

8. Pete Fandel, Woodford County, IL — Broadening Horizons. "Fertility" includes soil structure and microbiology for long-term soil health and defense against erosion. Blending in livestock and including covers, hay and wheat in the rotation reinforces the benefits of long-term no-till and minimum tillage.

9. Ralph Holzwarth, Potter County, SD — Low Disturbance, High Success. 100% no-till since 1992 on 6,000 dryland acres, this family operation rotates winter wheat, corn, soybeans, sunflowers and lentils. In a region with only 18 inches of rain annually, they do everything to preserve moisture and block wind erosion. Diverse rotations allowed them to eliminate fallowed land, which blows and discourages earthworms and other soil organisms. Soils which in 1992 had 1% organic matter are now up to 3% and even 4%.

10. Frank Moore, Howard County, IA. Plan for Events, Not Averages. Iowa's weather patterns have shifted in recent years to more "big" rainstorm events with dry stretches between them. That takes a resilient cropping strategy. Frank and his farming partner Matt Miner deal with this by using strip-till and increasing their acreage of cover crops. They've tested seeding ideas like aerial seeding cereal rye into standing corn.

11. Mark Mueller, Waverly, IA — History Lesson. Cooperation with a large neighboring dairy by taking manure and using cover crops has eliminated commercial fertilizer on silage ground for the past 10 years. Early silage harvest accelerates establishment of cover crops. All 1,600 acres of corn for grain, corn silage, alfalfa and soybeans are no-till.

12. Les and Jerry Seiler, Fulton County, OHConnect the Dots. The "connections" are the ways cover crops protect the soil, improve water infiltration, increase water-holding capacity, multiply soil biological life, stabilize soil temperatures and provide a flow of naturally generated crop nutrients. That allows the Seilers to cut back on herbicides and insecticides.

13. Tim Smith, Eagle Grove, IA — Insure Your Soil, Protect Your Water. Tim's participation in the "Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative" triggered long-lasting and profitable measures such as strip till, cover crops and discontinuing anhydrous. He also installed a biochip reactor. Water leaving his farm now has lower nitrate levels than the stream it flows into. He sees his cover crop investment as "soil insurance."

14. Gordon Wassenaar, Prairie City, IA — Eagle Eye. Cover crops and strip-till are synergistic. The goal is to rebuild organic matter back to undisturbed prairie days. Farmers in Gordon's area are also looking to cut nitrate runoff, which is a problem for the city of Des Moines downstream.