Cover Crops Practicum Blog

Cover Crops Practicum Blog

May 5, 2016
Cover Crops Practicum Blog

“Introduction and Basic Overview”—

Cover crops are plants whose main purpose is not to be a harvestable product such as cash crops like corn, soybeans, and the like. They are planted in order to reduce soil erosion, add nitrogen and organic matter back to the soil, improve water safety, and enhance pest management while reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. Cover crops are growing in the agricultural industry and helping the movement for sustainable production practices. From the latest SARE cover crop report. On average, they reported a yield increase of 5.1 bushels per acre (3.1%) on the corn fields and two bushels per acre (4.3%) on the soybean fields following cover crops. This increase has helped catapult the overall usage of cover crops across the states. According to the 2013 Census of Agriculture, there were 10.3 million acres of cover crops planted in the United States on 133,124 farms throughout the nation. It was a dramatic increase and according to the Practical Farmers of Iowa, in Iowa alone there was a 200% increase in cover crop usage from 2010-2013. As the industry will see in the near future, more and more farmers are converting to cover crops and for good reason.

“Uses and Types of Cover Crops”–

The use of cover crops is slowly picking up across the country as many are starting to look at their soil and management techniques as possible ways to lower cost. There has recently been a movement to start using cover crop mixtures in order to add more benefits in a short time. A good way to think about this is farming in the shadow of nature. Nature doesn’t use mechanical tillage; grow a single crop, use pesticides or herbicides. Farmers who are using mixtures are seeing more of the benefits soon after their use. Some mixtures that are being used are growing a brassica (Turnip, Radish) along with a legume (Soybean, Hairy Vetch, Cow pea) these two crop types are great in combination due to the high need for nitrogen that brassica’s require.  Adding grasses to this mixture an increase the amount of nitrogen scavenged by the cover crop which will hold them until the next growing season. The amount of residue and nutrients scavenged by these crops feed the soil life which has many benefits.

“Benefits and Incentive Programs”—

Cover crops are beneficial in many ways such as: Cutting fertilizer costs, reducing the need for herbicides and other pesticides, improving yields by enhancing soil health, preventing soil erosion, conserving soil moisture protecting water quality and an increased production of oxygen for the atmosphere. Even though cover crops provide all of these wonderful benefits, they can sometimes be an aggravating up front cost because of timing of planting should be pre-harvest by interseeding in standing cash crop or immediately following cash crop harvest, with enough time to have proper growth before killing frost. But one should not shy away from them as there are government incentive programs to help subsidize the cost. These programs provided through Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) include Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP).  Below are the websites for the steps to apply for given programs and incentive fact sheets.

*Missouri CSP Qualifications

*340 Cover Crop Management

Page 6 of 37 Missouri 2016 Environmental Quality Incentives Program Policy


* Iowa 2015 Environmental Quality Incentive Program Policy

Click link to Practice #340 Cover Crops  file:///C:/Users/Owner/Downloads/FY15_Payment_Scenario_Booklet.pdf


ETHAN DECKER–Ethan Decker is a Student at Truman State University where he was a member of the varsity football team and is seeking a degree in Agriculture Science with plans to graduate in the spring of 2016. Ethan Decker grew up on his family farm just south of Shelbina, Missouri. Ethan’s family has a row crop operation with predominantly corn and soybean rotation while he is also a cow calf producer. Ethan plans on making his farm more sustainable by converting from conventional tillage to no-till and applying more cover crops, as it will serve as a dual purpose in proving health for his soil and forage for his cattle operation. Ethan has taken over head of operations and is the main proprietor on his family farm since the passing of his father in late 2013. Ethan plans to continue farming and sell crop insurance following graduation.

JACOB WOLF–Jacob Wolf is a senior at Truman State University seeking a degree in Agricultural Science while planning to graduate in May 2016. Jacob grew up on his family farm in Southeastern Iowa where they grow corn, soybeans and alfalfa while also having a small beef cattle herd. Jacob is currently working alongside his family as they try to expand the row crop operation and while building the cow herd. Jacob is hoping to take over the row crop operation soon and change to 100% no till with cover crops included. Future plans for Jacob are to continue working on the farm as well as work at a local Co-Op selling corn and soybean seed.

WESTON SMITH–Weston Smith is a student at Truman State University seeking a degree in Agricultural Science with plans to graduate in the fall of 2016. Weston grew up in the small town of La Plata, MO and has no previous experience in the farm life, but rather grew up playing golf and working at a small golf course in his hometown of La Plata. It was there that Weston developed a love for growing things and spending time enjoying agriculture. His past experience with several types of grasses on the golf course is what lead him to believe that a practicum project involving cover crops would be a good fit for him. After graduation Weston hopes to find a career that will combine his background and love for the game of golf with his education in agriculture.

COLBY DOHRMAN– Colby Dohrman is a student at Truman State University where is a member of the Varsity Football team and is seeking a degree in Agricultural Science with an emphasis in business with plans to graduate in December of 2016. Colby Dohrman grew up on his family farm just south of Sweet Springs, Missouri where they have a diversified livestock and row crop operation. They own and operate a farrow to finish swine operation, cow-calf cattle herd, and run a corn, soybean, and wheat row crop operation. Colby is taking an internship with Monsanto over the summer where he can study and learn more ways of sustainable agriculture. Colby plans to work outside of the family operation after graduation and pursue a career in production management practices.


The cover crop that was planted on 35 acres in Iowa was a rye cover crop that was following soybeans, this rye over had no fertilizer applied. Jacob kept 2 acres of soybean stubble fallow to act as a control. This over had germinated and was 3 inches tall before the winter set in and the rye went dormant. The rye over was mechanically terminated on April 15th. The Tissues samples were collected on April 10th. In order to analyze the results of this project we had to take soil samples and tissue samples to get a more accurate idea of the nutrient savings that this rye cover crop provided. So the largest margin for error in the calculations that are provided below is the moisture content of the rye samples that Jacob collected. To account for this error we used a moisture content of 75% and 80%. This error could have been eliminated if the drying of the rye took place at Truman State University but do to time constraints we had to send the samples off prematurely and were unable to collect a dry matter weight. Professor Franta Majs worked with Jacob during the collection and processing part of the project. Dr. Majs also worked with Jacob during the result section to figure out the savings of the project. The data will be presented in a form of the actual cost of each nutrient from prices provided by Chem Gro Inc. these prices were found by taking the formula for each fertilizer and finding the actual cost of the element. Since nitrogen was not provided in the soil samples we will only be able to show results from the nitrogen in the rye. The total nutrient savings of the first tissue samples taken were in a sandy soil and covered 15 acres, at 75% moisture content the savings were $142.07 and at 80% on the same soil and acreage the savings were $151.54. The total savings of the heavier clay soil that covers 20 acres at 75% moisture were $266.57 and at 80% the savings were $284. 34. The total savings of all 35 acres at 75% was $408.64 while at 80% the savings totaled $435.88. The cover crop cost a total of $300 so the over crop paid itself off just in nutrient savings with a profit of $135.88. It is worth noting that these figures do not include cost of planting, labor, or fuel. The value of the increased organic matter, water infiltration, improved soil structure, less weed pressure and increased nutrients that were mined by the root system could not be factored in but these benefits are being seen now and will be seen throughout the growing season.

To help show the effect that having a living root in the soil as long as possible does make a difference Jacob kept a 42 acre field fallow all winter. He sampled the field in the fall after harvest and in the spring before planting and found that the field had lost 84 lbs of potassium and 30 pounds of phosphorus. These nutrient losses totaled $37.81 per acre; if these losses were similar on each acre across this field, the total losses total $1587.98. This number does not include any nitrogen losses due to the soil samples not measuring the total nitrogen. All of these figures were using the price per pound of the nutrient lost or gained. If the farmer were to hire a Co-Op to apply fertilizer to these fields to restore the amount lost over winter they would apply fertilizer that is not a pure potassium or phosphorous fertilizer, they would apply a fertilizer in the form of 2 or 25. The Co-Op would have needed to apply $3965.58 total if the moisture content were at 75% if the moisture was 80% the cost would have been $4229.95. The field that lay fallow all winter would have cost $14,772.24 if the farmer were to have the Co-Op fertilize to restore all the nutrients lost in the winter. This is a very significant savings and although the cover crop did not perform as well in the sandy soil, the cover crop could have cut the losses well below what they were. The results above were all from Jacob’s ground and while Ethan had cover crops in on his farm ground a Co-Op had applied fertilizer on some of his acreage causing the nutrient levels to be skewed. The ground laying fallow last year during the growing season also caused trouble during the analysis.








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