The benefits of growing winter cover crops on agricultural fields was the focus of a field day Wednesday in rural Tiffin.
Sponsored by the Sandusky River Watershed Coalition and Seneca Soil and Water Conservation District at the Baugher farm on East CR 50, the day was designed to make corn, soybean and wheat producers more aware of cover crops.
More than $500,000 in funds are available from a "Making Sense Out of Soil $aving$" grant from the Great Lakes Commission's Great Lakes Basin Soil Erosion and Sediment Control Fund to help farmers start planting cover crops. Funds are available to farmers in the Tiffin subwatershed of the Sandusky River, which is comprised of Rock Creek, Morrison Creek, Willow Creek, Bells Run, Sugar and Spicer Creek and the river between CR 52 and Sandusky County's Beier Road.
Grants are available to farms not receiving USDA Farm Bill payments on similar practices, and a farm must have a signed Resource Management System Plan on fields involved in the program.
Most practices are paid at $10 per ton of soil saved. In addition to planting cover crops, practices include conservation cropping and tillage which changes cropping rotation, tillage system or residue management to increase soil savings; repairing or replacing tile mains; stabilizing streambanks; and repairing waterways no longer eligible for USDA funding.
Greg Fratti of The Cisco Companies spoke about using cover crops to build soil organic matter and soil tilth.
Some of his recommendations were Austrian peas, cereal rye, annual rye grass, several types of radishes and crimson clover. However, they must be managed properly. For example, annual rye grass can be difficult to kill.
"Cereal rye is a far more manageable crop than the annual rye grasses," he said.
Although there are some excellent choices for cover crops in the radish family, he cautioned producers to know what kind of seed they're buying. Some wild radish varieties never should be planted in a field.
He said cover crops are becoming a more accepted in crop production and are being recognized by government programs.
"They're paying a little more attention to cover crops, so that's good for you guys in case there are unusual circumstances like this spring," Fratti said.
Bret Margraf, nutrient management specialist, reviewed progress in the Honey Creek Watershed grant for stratified soil testing.
"We want to encourage more participation," he said. "We still have a lot of money to give out."
Margraf also shared his personal experience using cover crops on his farm near McCutchenville.
"Cover crops are a real big push," he said. "There are a lot of avenues to get some dollars and cents."
He said he started using cover crops on the recommendation of co-worker Lynn Eberhard at Seneca Soil and Water Conservation District.
He first planted Austrian winter pea and had good results.
"Next we planted cereal rye into our corn stubble," he said. "From there, it just kept evolving."
He began to use government programs to help pay for experiments such as using manure nutrients, planting radishes as cover crops and using cover crops to hold soil on slopes.
One of his favorites is Austrian winter pea, he said.
"The key to them is to not them get too big," he said.
Margraf said he has found many benefits.
"There's some effect of having a cover crop out there in the field," he said. "It does something when you get those hard downpours when in a lot of other situations you have to replant fields."
He suggested farmers ask themselves what they want from a cover crop, what equipment they have for seeding, how much management they want to do and their level of flexibility.
"Start small," he said. "Try a field or two. Keep looking at the changes in that field. There really is an incredible change it makes to the soil.
"These cover crops are the real deal. With all the money we've got being thrown at us, now is the time to do it because in a few years it probably won't be offered."
For more information on grant funds, contact Stucky at Seneca SWCD, by calling (419) 447-7073 or emailing kendall.stucky@ oh.nacdnet.net, or Cindy Brookes, Sandusky River watershed specialist by calling (419) 334-5016 or emailing email@example.com.
Also contact Stucky for more information about funding, to apply for funding or for a map of eligible Sandusky River subwatersheds.