I was involved with the Green Revolution. My three years of High School Agriculture (late1950’s) included district, state, and even national (International) competitions. My first full-time job after high school (1959) was applying anhydrous ammonia fertilizer. With the start of a cheap fertilizer, crop development and the use of chemicals to control weeds and insects, we saw an increase in food production. Little did we know that:
“A huge increase in the incidence and prevalence of chronic diseases has been reported in the United States (US) over the last 20 years. Similar increases have been seen globally. The herbicide glyphosate was introduced in 1974 and its use is accelerating with the advent of herbicide-tolerant genetically engineered (GE) crops. Evidence is mounting that glyphosate interferes with many metabolic processes in plants and animals and glyphosate residues have been detected in both. Glyphosate disrupts the endocrine system and the balance of gut bacteria, it damages DNA and is a driver of mutations that lead to cancer.” Journal of Organic Systems
With the increase in the use of glyphosate, some 22 diseases (for example, obesity, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, senile dementia, autism, and Parkinson’s disease) have exploded in recent years. The correlation is astounding and even though proof of cause and effect is not definite, Bayer, the owner of Roundup has settled 98,000 claims for almost 11 billion dollars related to claims against Roundup. This was for one illness, a form of cancer known as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And, if you see the charts, the use of glyphosate has increased at a steady pace in the last 50 years, but, the corresponding increase in the increase of the 22 diseases has in recent years leaped off the chart. Our soil, our air, and our water have all accumulated excess amounts and of course, our bodies also accumulate more and more in our fat cells.
Cover Cropping knowledge has only become readily available in the last 10 years or so. The process had been used by some farmers before, but widespread use was rare. From a health benefit, not only is the use of toxic chemicals reduced or even eliminated with cover crops, but the expense and labor of applying are eliminated. These chemicals are now found in the urine of most citizens of the US including the urine of children. We are yet to know what the effect of these chemicals will be after more years of exposure. We do know that the continued use of these chemicals destroys the microorganisms in the soil which contribute to the health of the plant and eventually the health of those eating the food. Between the excessive use of these chemicals and artificial fertilizer, we have damaging effects on our oceans, our rivers, our water supplies and even the air we breathe. Another advantage to cover cropping is the increased ability of the soil to store carbon rather than introducing additional carbon into the air affecting our climate. There are some who believe that our carbon problems could be solved with all farmers utilizing cover cropping and other regenerative agriculture methods.
Cover Cropping is not a “one size fits all” solution for farmers not only because of the size of their operations, but because of different soils, rainfall amounts and temperatures as well as the different crops grown. In this article, I will try to include options on how to start, how to keep expenses under control, how to adjust, how to increase your bottom line and what you should expect.
The goal of cover cropping is to keep a cover of living crops on the land during the offseason as well as to introduce a mulch of crop residue during the main crop growing period. The cover crops, between growing seasons, will produce the mulch residue, but at the same time introduce microorganisms below the surface of the soil. These organisms will produce nitrogen fertilizer, many times in the range of one to two hundred pounds per acre. In addition, the different organisms will interact with the roots of the cash crop and enable the plant to utilize existing minerals and moisture in the soil. The roots of the cover crops will extend deep into the soil breaking up the hardpan and even dissolving rocks for even more natural minerals. All the roots, fungi and other organisms that grow because of cover crops loosen the soil introducing humus and increasing the ability to absorb and hold water. Some soils after extended periods of cover crops have shown the ability to absorb up to 6 inches of rain in a 24 hour period without runoff. There are many examples where those farmers, utilizing cover crops, will have yields exceeding those of their neighbors during drought periods. As the mulch also reduces the soil temperature, two factors involved in climate change are addressed, moisture and temperature.
My example will be for a corn and soybean rotation. The first year, in mid or late August, a cover crop would be spread. This would require an airplane unless some other machinery with a high clearance is available. You will note that I am timing the schedule for the midwest along the I 70 corridor and adjustments will have to be made according to what part of the US you are farming. The soybean fields will need a later seeding as the cover crop can grow enough to be a problem if combining is delayed. The corn and soybeans will have to have be mature enough to allow sunlight to reach the ground to prevent mold forming on new sprouts.
One of the reasons I decided to write this article was a problem my farming brother has had to address is sufficient moisture in the fall to get germination of cover crop seeds from surface application. Drilling will address this problem, but would also delay spreading of cover crop seed until after harvest. It would also require the use of a drill which some farmers in the corn-soybean rotation no longer have. Since we are addressing a problem that different parts of our farming area may have, the USDA local extension office should have some suggestions and there may be a local farmer who does cover cropping that can help. After the first year, if you have a good layer of mulch, spreading the seed will allow it to fall through and then there should be moisture retained under the mulch which will germinate the seed. The soil will also be cooler under the mulch which many of the cover crop seeds will need for germination.
Most areas will receive some form of moisture in the winter and early spring, so the cover crop can be sown at that time. If you get the crop out early, March in our area, you will still see a good growth for mulch before termination for planting. Many of the cover crops are 60 day maturity and you will always roll or cut before seed pods develop. Most of the crops should be terminated during the bloom stage. Most of the cover crops have the greatest nitrogen production at bloom stage.
For those just starting out and wanting to keep expenses low, when you plant in the fall, don’t plant any of the grass-type seeds such as barley or wheat. If you only plant field peas, forage carrots, and brassicas, then when winter comes, all these crops will winter kill and in the spring you can no-till into the crops without rolling, mowing, or spraying. Again, the area you are in will determine if this is an option. I am sure the further south your farm lies would determine whether you can expect a killing freeze as many of these crops will need a temperature below 20 degrees. In some cases, field peas would winter kill at a warmer temperature.
One of the goals is to reduce or eliminate the expenses of production. Three major expenses are the GMO seed, the spray, and the fertilizer. I have read of many first-time converts who are able to reduce and or eliminate the spray for weeds and the fertilizer during the first season. A good fall cover crop is going to produce a lot of mulch for weed control and in the soil below, enough nitrogen and soil organisms to produce a corn crop equal in yield to your average. But for the first year or so whIle getting established, you may need to inject additional nitrogen and if the weeds are not under control, limited spraying.
I am sure many farmers are not confident that the layer of mulch will prevent weeds from sprouting and coming through the mulch. One of the reasons mulch works is that the soil is not disturbed to bring up weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate. There was a woman by the name of Ruth Stout who wrote a number of books on gardening without a hoe, Although she only raised garden crops, she never turned her soil. She applied straw and seaweed a foot or more deep and then just moved the mulch aside, dropped her vegetable seeds on the ground, pulled the mulch back onto the top of the seed. Reporters came from all over to see her weed and insect-free gardens. I can remember way back when we would break up sod. Weeds were always a problem. The soil is full of weed seeds that many times have lain there undisturbed for years and then sprouted when brought to the surface. The mulch prevents sunlight from reaching new seeds and it works.
I read about one farmer who was gradually converting his large farm to cover cropping. He noted that the first year, his cover crop would be about knee high. In the second year, the cover crop would be chest high. The third year, he would have to be on his tractor to be able to see over the cover crop. The amount of roots below will be about equal to what you see above. If you have ever read stories about when the state of Kansas was first explored, they would talk about the grass being so tall that they had to be on horseback to see over it. The reason I am explaining this is to prepare you for what may happen. As your soil comes alive and minerals become available for your cover crop, the growth may be something to deal with.
It is possible to plant in the living cover crop with a no till planter and then mow the cover crop. If you mow first, and the same is true with a crimping first, you may have problems with your planter furow openers clogging. Crimping as you plant means that the crop is laid down in the same direction as the forward movement of the planter. For another cost saving idea, one farmer took a heavy tool bar and draped it from the front of the planter on chains and it knocked down his cover crop.
The government understands the importance of cover crops. Not only will they provide funds to purchase the seed, but furnish enough extra to fly the seed on to the plot. In the current plan, signed in Aug, 2022, additional billions were added to the plan. The government also allows other businesses to pay farmers who farm in this method to store carbon in the soil. Traditional farming releases stored carbon while cover crop farming captures and restores carbon in the soil.
This is so important that some think that if all farmers practiced regenerative farming, enough additional carbon would be stored in the soil to offset the amount put there by our current industry.
I have read that the commercial pork units will pay a bonus for corn raised in cover crops as that corn has enhanced food value. I can’t vouch for this and I suppose it would be determined by the distance from the pork factory. As you convert your farming operation, you are receiving help from the government, possible payments for carbon storage, protection for your yields from crop insurance and are on the road to becoming an organic farmer in three years.
When I was farming with an Amish farmer 15 years ago, he raised organic corn on my land and was able to sell it for twice what corn was selling for at that time. I don’t know the price difference now, but there is a shortage of organic products in the US. In fact, the last I knew, we were importing organic products from other countries to fill our needs.
When the Green Revolution began, I don’t remember farmers being concerned about food for other continents. What I remember was the emphasis on better production with more profit. After all, farmers are like everyone else. We want to live better with more money in our pockets. I am sure that many of the major players in food production and distribution have the same capitalist viewpoint. There has been some movement toward breaking up the larger food industries.
The individual farmer needs to think of the future. Whatever your opinion of climate change, what we know is that we have drought conditions that spread from one part of the country to another and we have excessive rainfall that breaks these droughts with runoff that causes destruction and death. With temperatures breaking records all around the world, the time has come to plan for the future.
Cover cropping reduces the soil temperature by 15 degrees or more. The increased water holding ability of cover cropped soil not only catches a lot of those excessive rainfall amounts, but creates a reservoir for future use. I live close to Independence Mo and near the downtown, there is a log building by where the spring that furnished water for the wagon trains that came that way. At one time, springs were common. Even in my lifetime, I can remember going to the back 40 and pumping water for our cattle. The well was fed by a spring and I will never forget how good that water tasted.
I think of my most recent great-granddaughter. She is one now. By the time she is 60, she will have been exposed to toxic chemicals for twice as long as I have near the end of my life. With children showing a greater concentration of these chemicals in their bodies, we must wonder about the end result. One study included the following effects on children.
“ birth defects,...), sexual development problems and neurological disorders such as: learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder (ADD) (de Cock et al., 2012), autism” .
I have always thought of farmers as stewards of the soil, but they are really the foundation of mankind. With the influence of our own government to change, I think the onus is on the farmers to step up and make a difference in our society. Over 60 other nations have already banned glyphosate and/or GMOs.
Why Farmers should consider Cover Cropping?
Reduced planting costs
Reduced labor and equipment costs
Government support for cover cropping costs
Carbon sequester advance payments
Insect and Disease Reduction
Personal Health Benefits
Contributing to Climate Control
Increased crop revenue
There are three types of cover crops that are usually used;
2.Tillage Radish (deep roots bring up many minerals,good weed suppresor-winter kill at 10 plus degrees)
6. Ethiopian Cabbage (quick maturing- Its great tap root that has many branch roots and can break up hardpan. Excellent nutrient scavenging and fertility building.)
7. Phacelia ( It is a nitrogen holder and weed suppressor.).
C. Trefoils (If allowed to go to seed, may become a weed problem itself)
1. Sun Hemp (good for after oats, wheat or barley. Can provide 100 lbs of nitrogen)
2. Austrian Winter Peas (Winter kills at 10 degrees- provides 60 to 120 lbs nitrogen)
Crimson clover (Up to 200 lbs nitrogen-fall plant- will winter over if above 10 degrees)
1. Buckwheat (Summer sow with high organic cover)
2. Annual Ryegrass (one of the most popular mixes for fall. Must be terminated in spring-Increases yield in dry years)
3. Oats (Fall seeding will winter kill-spring seeding in March to be terminated)
5. Pearl Millet
(Warm season planting has deep roots for breaking up hardpan and nutrient scavenging)
(flax helps to mobilize phosphorus in the soil and add organic matter. for use with small-seeded grasses and legumes)
Many available mixes have 3 combinations. I have read of farmers who use as many as 13 different seeds in the mix. The different plants develop different microorganisms which enhance the soil capabilities.
The Purdue University has a good article for those just starting. https://extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ay/ay-353-w.PDF. In addition, the USDA has information and the local extension officer should be able to giv e you local information.
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