Cover Crops an Important Part of Farmer’s Quest to Improve Soil Quality

Russ Wright will tell you that the 160 acres of ground in his rural Dunkerton farm is not filled with some of the richest soil in Black Hawk County. In fact, the sandy nature of the soil makes his ground pale, literally, by comparison. Armed with an eagerness to learn, some clever engineering and a family willing to help and work together, he’s confident that a combination of the conservation practices he uses will leave his land in better shape for those who follow him when his farming days are done.
Spend a few minutes with Russ to talk farming and his passion for the land and the future of farming soon becomes clear.
“We’re losing topsoil faster than we’re making it. If we keep farming the way we are, eventually our kids are going to have to learn how to grow food out of rock. That’s what will be left,” he said, referencing the very real threat soil erosion is to the future of farming.
Fifteen years ago, when corn prices were much closer to $2 a bushel, a coworker talked to Russ about planting a cover crop on portions of his farmland.
“I was hesitant,” he admitted. Despite his uncertainty, he went along and planted cereal rye in portions of his field, starting with some sand hills. A few years later when doing some grid sampling, there were numbers that got his attention.
“Where the rye had been planted, I had more p [phosphorus] and k [potassium]. That kinda made a believer out of me,” he said.
Cover crops, planted in the fall prior to harvest, then terminated before spring planting, have numerous benefits, including reducing soil erosion, increasing organic matter and improving overall soil quality.  They help limit the leaching of nitrogen and can help suppress weeds. In addition to increasing surface cover, small grain cover crops anchor corn and soybean residues and increase water infiltration.
Convinced of the many benefits cover crops can provide and armed with a plan designed to build organic material, Russ and his son Jake, an Ag Engineering student at Iowa State University, began to explore ways to efficiently and effectively plant cover crops. Initial efforts focused on seeding precisely measured portions of a soybean field. The planting of those seeds was a family affair, with wife Sherry, and daughters Bailey and Clare contributing to the effort. Lacking an automated delivery system, the family dispersed the seeds with the only tools they had- their hands. To build the amount of organic material he was looking for, Russ knew he needed a delivery system that could ensure seed to soil contact on a larger scale.
In a moment that would have made Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor proud, Jake and Russ devised a system over the course of several weekends, creating an air seeding system with a unique set of parts. Using a three-wheeled sprayer, a used air seeder purchased at a fraction of the cost of a new one, a Honda engine with a blower and a dimmer switch to control the flow of seeds, the “JR 2000” was born.
For the father-son duo, the time spent together building their first custom air seeding rig was perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the project. It’s a great partnership, Russ noted, acknowledging that his old-fashioned common sense balances nicely with the newer ideas Jake brings to the workbench.
Not willing to rest on their laurels, Jake and Russ immediately set out to improve their first prototype. The purchase of a used detassling machine brought four wheels and more stability to the rig. The addition of a windshield motor and pulse controller gave Russ greater control of the system and made it more reliable. The biggest improvement, though, was inspired by Jake, whose engineered a 40-foot boom. Seeding cover crops would never be the same on the Wright farm, now that the “JR 3000” was on the job. And while you won’t find Jake or Russ in the field clamoring for “more power,” the efficiency of the system they have created has resulted in more organic material, precisely the goal Russ has for “Farm Improvement.”
“I can’t say that my yields are any better. But my goal is not to squeeze every kernal out of the ground. My goal is to make my land better,” he said.
While cover crops can provide a range of benefits, it is the producer’s goals and desired outcomes that help drive the selection and management of the crops planted. Utilizing a blend of seeds, cereal rye is one of the varieties that has thrived on his land, able to withstand even the harshest of winters.  If his primary goal was maximum nutrient recovery or alleviating soil compaction, he might choose to plant deep rooted species, such as radishes, instead.
In addition to choosing the appropriate seed, there are other strategies a producer should consider when developing a management plan for cover crops. The timing of when to plant is important so the cover crop can be established prior to winter. Russ, for example, has seen good results planting his cover crops in late August/early September. Not only is planting prior to the fall harvest a more convenient time for him, it provides valuable time for his crop to grow the organic material he seeks.
Determining the appropriate time to terminate the cover crop is also important. Depending on the type of crops planted, termination is typically done up to two weeks prior to spring planting to minimize the risk of reducing yields. It is important to note that when considering crop yields, research indicates that weather has a far greater impact on bushels per acre than the presence of cover crops.
With the planting of his corn and beans complete, Russ continues to read and study ways to improve conservation practices that make his farming operation both viable today and for many years to come. His quest to improve soil quality remains an ongoing journey, one that will take many years to accomplish. As he considers the future challenges that await his children’s generation, it’s a trip he’s willing to take.
Editor’s Note: Producers interested in learning more information how Russ Wright has incorporated cover crops into his operation can reach him via e-mail at Hawkeye Community College will host a special cover crop event sponsored by Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD), USD National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), IDALS and ECI Coop on June 30, 2014. The event will include presentations related to the financial and soil health benefits cover crops can provide for producers. To RSVP for this free event, contact Shane Wulf of the Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District at 319-296-3262, ext. 305. Due to space contraints, the meeting is limited to 150 persons. -MW