Local farmers using cover crops to combat erosion

Editor’s note: Harmful algal blooms and the health of Lake Erie have been in the public eye for the past month after Toledo was forced to tell its residents not to drink the water coming out of their home taps in early August because of high levels of a toxic bacteria.

Since then, there has been much discussion about how to reduce the amount of dissolved reactive phosphorous entering Lake Erie from various sources. The variety of non-point sources – meaning sources of a general nature instead of from a specific location – makes reduction of phosphorous a complicated process.

Agricultural methods is one the sources that impact Seneca County. Although the farming community has been working on making people aware of its efforts for years, the recent public awareness has brought the matter to the forefront.

Although the use of cover crops in agriculture has been an option for several years, farmers are becoming more aware of the benefits of the practice for their businesses and for the health of Lake Erie.

As with any new idea, it takes a few years before it becomes a general practice. And the use of cover crops is in the stage where farmers are becoming aware of the benefits, according to producers who have been using the practice for several years and studies that have shown the benefits.

Cover crops, by definition, are a crop planted in the fall to hold soil in place during the winter months after harvest until corn and soybeans are planted again in the spring.

Seneca Conservation District is using field signs, information on the website, social media and similar avenues to make farmers and the public aware of cover crops, said Beth Diesch, SCD outreach coordinator, in her blog on the topic on the agency’s website.

“Healthy soil equals healthy water,” she said. “Awareness leads to knowledge, caring and true problem-solving then can follow.”

Diesch said a popular cover crop now being seeded by airplane is cereal rye, a grass in the wheat family. Dwight and Lisa Clary of Clary Farms deliver the cereal rye to area airports and auger it into a mini-bulk tote on the plane. During the past week, the plane and crew have been at Tiffin’s airport.

Luther Gibbs of Gibbs Aerial flies the plane full of cereal rye seed to the

farmers’ fields of growing corn or soybeans and drops seed with the help of GPS.

Last year, Dwight Clary said 6,000 acres in Seneca and other northwest Ohio counties were seeded, which equals about 9 square miles.

“This year, we’ll probably cover that much or more,” he said.

Clary said seeding by airplane begins around Sept. 1 each year, depending on weather variables.

“The advantage to that is we gain three to six weeks of growth (before cold weather sets in) and it frees farmers to dedicate time to the harvest.”

Soybean leaves drop as the plants ready for harvest, and he said the cover crop underneath holds those leaves in place.

“Soybeans drop leaves very fast,” he said. “And there are nutrients in those leaves. Cover crops start taking the nutrients up right away, rather than waiting for the cover crop plants to grow.”

So, in short, that yellow airplane flying over the corn and soybean fields is a sign that farmers are taking steps to help reduce the problem of phosphorous loading in Lake Erie.

“One of the main reasons producers have a higher interest in cover crops is just knowing the issues of Lake Erie,” said Kendall Stucky, SCD’s manure nutrient technician. “And, generally speaking, farmers want the lake to be healthy too. It’s our goal to keep a healthy lake, and at the same time, produce high-quality food.”

Although many farmers have been aware of cover crops for several years, he said many haven’t considered the idea from all angles.

“They’re not doing them because there’s an additional expense of cover crops seed and they don’t put any value on the benefits from cover crops,” he said.

“Some of it, too, is a timing issue,” he added.

Cover crops must be planted in the fall, which is during harvest season. Due to weather conditions and lack of time, some farmers can’t get cover crops planted.

The timing issue is solved in some cases by seeding from an airplane.

“We want to let people know that farmers are caring about this phosphorous issue and we’re doing something about it,” said Clary, a proponent and speaker about cover crops, no-till farming and conservation agriculture.

“Farmers are actively involved in solving their portion of the problem,” he said.

Seneca County farmers are increasing the number of acres in cover crops this fall by about 16,000 acres, Stucky said. The increase is due to $680,000 in federal funds recently allocated to help farmers pay for implementing practices that reduce nutrient loading into ditches and streams.

“All that has pretty much been allocated,” he said.

Farmers who apply are chosen to receive funds based on a ranking system that takes into consideration such criteria as soil type, crop residue and highly erodible conditions.

He estimated the funds will place 16,000 new acres into cover crops this fall.

“We didn’t have a program like that last year, so most of these are new acres,” he said.

Stucky said there isn’t an estimate available of the percentage of cropland in Seneca County where cover crops are used.

“There are pockets of very high percentage and areas where there’s nothing happening,” he said.

“We would like to have no bare soil out there this winter into spring,” Stucky said. “The main goal is to reduce soil erosion and reduce dissolved phosphorous going into creeks and ditches.”

Dissolved reactive phosphorous is one of the nutrients that leaves a farm field during soil erosion, and the nutrient that researchers in the scientific community have found contributes most to harmful algae blooms.

Stucky said retaining topsoil – and the nutrients it contains – is beneficial to everyone involved. Farmers keep their productive soil and the nutrients, and less soil and nutrients are washed into streams that eventually end up in Lake Erie.

“This is the most economical, fastest, environmentally friendly way to solve the farmers’ portion,” Clary said. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be 100 percent, but it’s going to go a long way.”

He said studies have shown every ton of topsoil lost through erosion contains $180 worth of phosphorous and nitrogen.

“And that’s at 2011 fertilizer prices,” he said.

As an example, he said an area of tilled soil might lose 2.5 tons of topsoil through runoff into streams, and the same area in no-till would lose a half ton of soil.

“We can reduce that half ton by another 90 percent,” he said.

Looking at it from another economic perspective, he said 1 percent of organic matter per 10 tons of soil held $900 worth of phosphorous and nitrogen.

“Some of these cover crops can potentially produce a ton or more of organic matter in your soil,” he said. “They can capture and hold and put back into the soil nutrients you would lose.”

In short, he said cover crops make money for farmers.

“But farmers don’t necessarily understand the return on their investment,” he said.

Retaining soil in fields, along with improving the health of the soil, are just part of the benefits of using cover crops, according to Clary, who has been using the practice of no-till farming for 33 years.

“I’ve used cover crops a lot of those years, more intensely the last 10 or 12 years,” he said. “No-till improved the soil and, when you add cover crops, it takes it up to the next level.

“The longer you do it, the better your fields become,” he said. “There’s some things you just know has a benefit and there’s other things we can actually put a dollar value on.”

One of the many benefits of cover crops is reducing water runoff and soil erosion, Clary said.

“I’ve seen studies where they said it could be up to 90 percent reduction,” he said. “A well-established plant wants two things, water and nutrients. The plants capture and hold nutrients that you would normally lose.

“I don’t know how else a farmer would capture and reduce that runoff without using plants,” Clary said.

He said cover crops are tilled into the soil and reused.

“It just recycles them through and puts in organic matter,” he said. “It released those nutrients back into the grain crops.”

Another benefit is loosening the soil without tillage and decreasing soil compaction.

“By having the cover crop roots go down into the soil, over a period of time your soil gets looser, deeper,” he said.

Manure management is another benefit, Clary said.

“Establish a cover crop and then spread manure on it,” he said. “Then the nutrients that are available the plants will capture and hold instead of letting them run off.”

Or a cover crop can be used for grazing cattle, he said.

“Livestock producers can really utilize cover crops more,” he said.

Overall, Clary said soil becomes more alive as earthworms and microbes become more prevalent. The goal is 500,000 earthworms per acre.

Worms eat soil to extract nutrients, and help to harvest nutrients from the soil. Worms then excrete the parts they can’t digest, he said.

“They eat tons and tons of topsoil,” he said. “It’s a cycle process. You run that soil through the insides of an earthworm and it becomes available.”

The topsoil becomes richer and more fertile.

“A good ton of healthy topsoil has as many microbes in it as there are people living on the planet,” he said. “I’ve seen pictures of these critters under a magnifying glass. There are all kinds – bacteria, fungus, the whole spectrum.”

He said 95 percent of them are beneficial, and 5 percent are harmful to crops.

“And the beneficial ones overtake the harmful ones as the quality of soil improves,” he said.

In addition to cereal rye, Clary said a variety of other cover crops are

available, depending on the needs of the soil.

“Blends also work well,” he said.

He said some plants produce nitrogen, while holding what is already there.

“The scavenger does not produce nutrients, but it seeks out nutrients that are available in the soil that we would lose and holds them.”

Clary said a mix of root types also are beneficial. Some plants have deep roots that penetrate the soil and others are better for producing rich topsoil.

“A mixture of root systems produce different goals,” he said. “And then match that to the crop that is going to be planted the next year.”

Clary said some farmers don’t use cover crops because they’ve had some failures or heard about problems.

“One of the big things is maybe a lack of confidence,” he said. “They think ‘I’ve never done this before and it’s something completely different than I’ve ever done before.’

“We want to produce organic matter,” he said. “Our soils are in desperate

need of organic matter and you can’t have organic matter if you don’t have plants.

“We want to maximize the plants per acre,” he said. “You don’t plant 25 pounds of soybeans to get a crop. They kind of short-change themselves. Save a penny, lose a dime sort of thing.”

Clary said he has experimented through the years and has discovered what crops and systems work best.

He invites other producers to learn from his experiments and mistakes.

“I’ve had some failures,” he said. “But there are fewer and fewer of those all the time. There’s more and more understanding that these cover crops are going to be beneficial.”

Cover crops are managed just like any other crop.

“You’re not harvesting in the conventional sense,” he said. “What you are doing is growing beneficial things for your crop. You’re gaining the benefits of what it can do for you.

“It’s kind of like cattle manure,” he said. “It’s not directly beneficial, but it’s very beneficial to your next crop.

“But it goes way beyond that,” he said. “As they learn that, (farmers) get a more comprehensive view and they become more comfortable with it.”

For more information on cover crops, call SCD at (419) 447-7073, visit the conservesenecacounty.com website or find SCD on Facebook.