On Tuesday, April 2, the Practical Farmers of Iowa held a field day in North Iowa on the Wayne and Ruth Fredericks Farm, rural Osage.
During the event, organizers helped to dispel some of the myths that accompany discussions surrounding the use of cover crops in northern Iowa and southern Minnesota.
Practical Farmers of Iowa is an organization that advocates for farming methods which preserve soil and water quality.
During a tour of a tract of Fredericks’ land, which grew cover crops, attendees discovered the soil seemed much dryer than nearby ground.
Despite the extreme moisture throughout winter, they found the soil was damp, but didn’t stick to their shoes.
Fredericks said attributed the drier conditions to soil health and soil drainage that comes from live roots that remain in the ground through the late fall and winter.
He said organic matter derived from several years of cover crops also acts like a sponge in absorbing moisture, which will later be released when crops can better utilize it.
Last fall, Fredericks and Practical Farmers of Iowa cooperated to do a field trial on cover crop planting dates and the rate of seeding for cereal rye.
Due to the extreme wet weather, Fredericks did not drill the first cereal rye until October 22, using two trial rates of 28 and 55 pounds of seed per acre. A second drilling occurred on November 1, with the same seed amounts. Fredericks said under normal fall conditions the drill dates would have been nearly two weeks earlier.
Walking across the trial area, where the rye had been drilled on October 22, attendees only found a few spears of it above ground, due to the late spring and extreme cold temps.
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However, when they dug down about an inch, they discovered the rye was about to emerge from the earth.
“It’s a near perfect stand,” said farmer and seed dealer Dean Sponheim, as he unearthed several feet of the green plants.
Sponheim said seeing the healthy rye plants, dispels the rumor cover crops can’t be grown this far north with any success.
It was noted as of April 2 the later November drilling had not surfaced as well. Fredericks will have to wait for warmer weather to see results of that trial.
Fredericks and Practical Farmers of Iowa will continue to monitor each trial area, collecting data on bio-mass production this spring and yields of the row crop next fall, before compiling the final test results.
Another issue addressed during the field day was planting row crops into green standing rye and terminating the cover crop a few days later. Many long-term users of cover crops prefer this method.
However Sponheim, a longtime promoter of the practice, warned, “For first time users it probably best they burn down the cover crop two weeks prior to planting, for their peace of mind.”
After the field demonstration, attendees traveled to Frederick’s farmstead, where he gave a presentation on how cover crops and other conservation practices have improved soil health and water quality on the family farm.
“We have had a 2.5 percent increase in organic matter over the past 25 years on this farm and we are improving water quality downstream,” Fredericks said. “There needs to be a time when soil health is discussed in the evaluation of land prices. Now we don’t recognize it, but I know a real estate man who believes someday those discussions will come.
“I believe if this state was filled with cover crops we would have no nitrate issues.”