BOONE - Iowa is a leader in crop production due to its productive soil types.
A farm family near Boone said they began using cover crops in order to help protect their top soil by lessening the chance of erosion and to help increase organic matter.
Jeremy Gustafson farms with his father, Steve Gustafson, and uncle, Larry Gustafson. They have been working cover crops into their corn and soybean strip-till operation, Gustafson estimated, "for four years now."
-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson
Jeremy Gustafson checks the rye that is growing in a recently harvested corn field, during a field day last week held near Boone. Gustafson said he prefers to have something growing in his fields for as long as possible.
Tom Kaspar, with the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, said there are several benefits to using cover crops.
"The most obvious is improving erosion protection from wind and water," said Kaspar. Cover crops "also help increase soil organic matter with a more stable population of soil organisms."
Cover crops, he added, will also take up nitrogen that would normally be lost and then recycle it into the soil.
Each fall, the Gustafsons have oats seeded into bean stubble and rye seeded into corn stalks.
The oats, Gustafson said, are seeded with the use of their 30-foot air drill. The goal is to get oats seeded within a day of the beans being harvested.
The rye, he said is aerial seeded into standing corn around Labor Day, which helps get the rye established earlier and also helps with saving on extra labor during the busy harvest season.
"The cover crops help with wind and water erosion, and we get a benefit of the soil microbes," said Gustafson. "We always like to have something growing in the field, and right now we've had over seven weeks of extra growth."
In the short time the Gustafsons have been using the practice, they are already seeing a difference.
"Our soil tilth is excellent," said Gustafson. "Especially in the fields with rye, because those plants dig down and loosen up the soil. We also are seeing the rain is captured and the run-off seems cleaner and there is less erosion as well."
Managing cover crops before spring planting, Gustafson said, is the biggest disadvantage to adding them in to their operation, so far.
One has "to be watching it and be sure it (rye) gets sprayed when it needs to be sprayed,"?he said. "Sometimes it can get tall.
"But the benefits outweigh all of the negatives."
Kaspar said the key is in learning how to manage covers. He warned producers to be sure to kill the cover crops within two weeks of planting, because the plants can get tall, causing yield loss in the same way as weeds.
"It can all be managed and most farmers are doing that without any problems," said Kaspar.
He said more farmers are beginning to show interest in using cover crops.
"There has been a lot of interest," said Kaspar. "People are concerned about long-term soil conditions and this is even something that people with flat land should consider doing.
"It's a long-term investment in maintaining the value of the land."
The Gustafsons receive assistance through the NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program for planting cover crops and recommend other farmers interested in adding that practice to contact a county's NRCS office.
They should also try on a small scale to start, Gustafson said.
"I can only say how it works for us," said Gustafson.
"We try to think outside of the box and try different things.
"I suggest trying it on 10 or 20 acres to see if it works for you.
"There aren't many acres in our area. We were looking to decrease input costs and thought this was a good avenue to try to save nutrients on our farm and use biological activities to help release those nutrients.
"There's more organic matter in the soil and more water holding capacity and that was evident this year."
Kaspar recommends contacting the Midwest Cover Crop Council at www.mccc.msu.edu for more information.
Contact Kriss Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.