Field demos and rental equipment can help customers see first hand the benefits of planting cover crops and justify an equipment purchase

When it comes to selling cover crop equipment, the secret is not in a fancy sales pitch. It’s in knowing the ins and outs of cover crops themselves.

“I think it all comes down to understanding, or at least having an idea, of what the cover crop is and what you expect it to do,” says AJ Adkins, owner of NTM Ag Equipment in Brownsburg, Ind. “Every year it’s going to change, but you have to be able to tell your customer things like: ‘Hold off planting’ or ‘If you are going to plant into it, make these changes to your planter.’”

When it comes to the question of what equipment to actually use, Gary Fennig, owner of Fennig Equipment in Coldwater, Ohio, says that’s being asked of him by a lot of producers. There’s not one good answer, he explains. A farmer’s individual management style and equipment purchases depend on the types of cover crop he’s planting as well as existing equipment modifications that can be made and new equipment that’s needed.

From the wide variety of seeder options (drilling, aerial, broadcast, etc.) to tillage tools, roller-crimpers, harvest equipment or herbicide applicators, cover crops demand a detailed knowledge of the crop’s growth and life cycle before making any big purchases.

Dealers should look to industry leaders and local farmers using cover crops to learn as much as they can, and become a partner with their customers.

Cover crops aren’t going away; in fact, they are gaining popularity. “Over the last 5 years, it went from zero to 100 in a blink of an eye,” Fennig says. “There are people saying that by 2020 they would like to have 20 million acres of cover crops nationally; right now we have 2 million.” The increasing government regulations for runoff and soil management will only make cover crops more appealing, and necessary, in the years to come.

“Farmers are realizing the value of cover crops and what they can do,” says Don Droesch, owner of Droesch Farm Service in Maria Stein, Ohio. He sells a variety of cover crop equipment and agrees much of the increasing interest has to do with nutrient and erosion management. Cover crops offer a big benefit by locking nutrients in the plant in fall, then decomposing into the soil in spring. “If you try to keep something on the soil year round, it definitely makes the soil healthier,” he adds.

Cover crops are also being used by farmers of all sizes, from a few hundred acres to several thousand, these seasoned professionals say. They each also plant them on their own farms, and together have 20 years of cover crop knowledge (and experience) to share with their customers.

“As the industry that services the cover crops, we have a lot going ahead for us, but there’s also a lot of work that has to be done along the way,” Fennig adds.

Droesch says farmers are looking at this as a “good idea” but then need quick, economically efficient ways to make it happen on their farms. Margins are much tighter this year and input costs are rising. Cover crops are a new, unknown venture for many farmers, the same people who like to crunch numbers and prefer to not add more red to their spreadsheets.

Adkins agrees: “If you don’t know what you’re doing, or what the product is going to do in the field, you could end up with a disaster.” Then, you could lose a customer, he concludes.

Know Your Cover Crops

Dealers agree it’s difficult to sell cover crop equipment without having a solid understanding of the how, why and what of cover crop management.

Adkins says that just knowing about rye, one of the most popular cover crops, will not cut it. “A lot of times guys will think annual rye grass and cereal rye are the same thing,” he explains. They may look similar in the fall after being planted, but by spring, one will be 6-feet tall and have a couple feet of roots, and the other a foot or two high with 6-foot roots.

Cereal rye, for example, will show a lot of top growth and be stem-heavy when trying to plant into it, Adkins says. Last year he just ran the planter through 200 acres of cereal rye on Starkey Farms in Brownsburg, where he is employed, but in the acres planted with annual rye grass, he had more roots to contend with. That task required a different row cleaner, and Adkins says it’s his job as the equipment dealer to inform his customers about the items they will need to manage a variety of crops in a variety of conditions. “It’s the dealer’s job to say, ‘Ideally, on this cover crop, you’re going to want this set up, while with this crop, you’ll need this set up.’” Then, the customers must decide what is best for them.

Droesch says the trends are changing yearly, and now more “cocktail” mixes are available. These may include up to 6 varieties of seeds, and he says farmers are seeing the crops complementing each other well. The talk comes back to equipment. Regardless of the type of cover crop, “We have to make sure we can plant into it,” he stresses.

For those who don’t want to worry about spring kill, Fennig recommends starting with radishes and oats as cover crop choices. “They’ll die out over winter because of the frost,” he adds. “I think that’s one thing a farmer really doesn’t want to deal with in the spring, especially if it’s a wet spring.” A cover crop that overwinters, however, can get out of hand very quickly, and this spring Fennig says is looking to be another cold and wet one.

Adkins says a challenge he faces often is the customer saying he doesn’t have time for cover crops. A mindset shift is happening in the industry, though, as the younger generation embraces the movement. His neighbors have seen him use cover crops for a decade and while some have seen the benefit, he says there will always be those who think of it as just “growing weeds.”

He accepts this and realizes, as other dealers do, that cover crop management is not a one-size-fits-all approach. They also see equipment dealers as the crux of the cover crop industry’s growth. “If we can get the equipment out there that actually makes it easier to terminate the crop, or plant directly into it. I think that’s what’s going to push cover crop use,” he says.

Partnerships That Last

Droesch agrees dealers need to understand how cover crops will help farmers. Building relationships with seed and chemical dealers, as well as soil and water specialists, is a key component in the service a dealer provides his customers.

Fennig agrees, and says there is a fine line between a seed salesman and a machinery dealer. If a customer has questions, such as what should they plant and at what rate, Droesch says either the equipment dealer must know enough to figure out what would work, or direct the person to the seed experts. Part of the dealership’s educational component is attending meetings, conservation tillage conferences and industry events. “I know some days we all have way too many meetings to go to,” he says. “My attitude has always been, ‘If I stay there a day and come back with one or two things I never knew before, it makes it worth my while.’”

Droesch Farm Service in Maria Stein, Ohio, sells specialty air seeders from Valmar for cover crop seeding. Photo Courtesy of Valmar

Adkins discovered one of the benefits of cover crops is a reduction in runoff from his fields. He has developed a strong partnership with the local college, Indiana Univ. – Purdue Univ. Indianapolis. The drainage tile on his farm feeds the Eagle Creek Reservoir, the drinking water source for Indianapolis. About a decade ago researchers at the university began monitoring increases in nitrogen in the reservoir as well as its sources.

“The second year we put cover crops on the field and side dressed, it drastically reduced the amount of nitrogen runoff,” Adkins says. The researchers actually saw the measurable difference and asked Adkins what had changed, and then realized most of the remaining nitrogen runoff wasn’t from the farmers, but neighboring subdivisions. Adkins tells this story to customers who question the value of cover crops. He acknowledges cover crops take more management, another pass through the field each spring, but feels it’s better to be proactive and not wait until regulations force the practice.

Droesch agrees and has had the same situation with the Great Lakes St. Mary’s Watershed in Mercer County, Ohio. This has incidentally given him a jumpstart into cover crop equipment. The livestock operations around him were coming under fire and needed a solution. He works with his customers to help them make cover crops the best return on investment as possible. In addition to the nutrient and erosion benefits, he says there are programs available to make it less of a financial obligation.

At the same time additional runoff controls were being required and government programs began to offer incentives to plant cover crops, to the tune of $30-$50 per acre, Droesch explains. “We try to stay on top of these things, with our soil and water offices,” he says. “What programs are available? Are there some things a farmer can collect to help justify this?” He says some farmers are willing to go through the extra hoops and paperwork, while others don’t want more tasks. Regardless, he says making a call is worth the time, and having the information available at the dealership gives farmers another level of trust and reliance on their cover crop equipment professional.

Firsthand Experience

Adkins says his biggest asset as a dealer is his firsthand knowledge as a farmer. “We struggled with the same thing as farmers. When we started using cover crops we could get out there and get them growing, but once the crops are growing, the problems start. Nobody knew how to kill it and nobody knew how to plant into it.”

It’s different than planting into traditional tilled soil in the spring, Adkins admits, and says it’s a real struggle for farmers who have no idea where to start and are new to cover crops. The last thing he wants is for a customer to get frustrated and walk away after a challenging first year. Adkins says he’s been through the challenges, and knows what works and won’t work in his soil type. It was this thought that led him to start NTM Equipment and become a resource to other farmers who need direction with cover crops. “The first year we did 20 acres and it was a nightmare,” he says. “The next year we tried 40 acres and had better luck, then gradually increased.”

He recently bought a Dawn six-round strip till machine, and has customers interested in seeing how it can be used in standing rye grass in the spring. “But they don’t want to take on the initial cost of buying a high-dollar piece of tillage equipment,” he explains. “I bought the six-row for the sole purpose of demoing it on our farm and on customer’s farms. I was willing to buy this piece of equipment to get it out there.”

Fennig sells Salford’s Residue Tillage Specialist (RTS), which breaks up residue and makes a seed bed for spring planting. Attachments can be added to this piece for specific crop seeds or deeper fertilizer applications. This dealer says field days are an important way to encourage farmers to try new cover crop equipment. He farms 200 acres of his own and agrees that his cover crop practices and lessons learned become important knowledge which he passes along to his customers.

Droesch says this is his fifth season selling specialty air seeders from Valmar. A small seeding box is mounted on a customer’s implement of choice, especially a vertical tillage tool, to make the residue management and seeding a one-pass process. He developed a rental program to help boost sales and increase the general understanding of cover crop equipment.

He also uses the equipment on his home farm and says this offers a more than “take my word” for it sales tool. “We can walk the fields and I’ll show you what we’ve done,” he tells customers. He keeps various equipment in stock strictly for rental use, understanding that a $50,000 purchase is something a new cover crop farmer may find intimidating, especially if they are unsure how it works and if it actually will work. Most of the time, they run it one year and see how it works. If it does, Droesch discusses if it makes sense to purchase the piece.

When a rental isn’t in the books, Droesch says the tried-and-true “neighbor” approach typically does the trick. “You need to find the innovative farmers who are willing to take that step to try it out, he says.

Make a Plan

A well-thought out plan is something invaluable to a farmer introducing cover crops into his operation. They need to match the seed they choose to the appropriate equipment, and will look to their local dealership for expertise.

The first obstacle dealers have to overcome is the common sticker shock, explains Droesch. He says it’s then up to him to work with the farmer and justify the purchase, but also make sure it’s one he will use and know how to use.

Farmers overcome the sticker shock when they can see the long-term benefits of cover crop use and equipment purchases. Fennig says it takes time, and after 4 years of using cover crops on his own farm, he’s cutting back on spring fertilizer application and maintaining strong yields.

“You can’t just go into a farmer’s driveway and try to sell him cover crop equipment,” Fennig says. “You have to know the ins and outs of the industry and how to approach it.” He said his best advice is to let the farmer talk first, and in 5 minutes, a dealer will learn more than he would by attempting a sales pitch.

Fennig explains there are a variety of options for seeding alone, such as aerial, broadcast, drilling or a highboy. Both the aerial and highboy applications can be done while the crop is still in the field, and require a higher rate of seeding, he says. However, the seed is not being incorporated with the ground and both applications are not always well liked for that reason, he adds. What follows is a wait-and-wonder period to see which seeds actually took. Droesch says broadcast applications also are more dependent on Mother Nature, though some local operations have been very successful with it. One of his customers added a second machine two years ago.

Adkins has been using cover crops for 10 years and attempts to cover all 2,800 acres on his farm. He says last year he planted 200 acres of cereal rye and used the Dawn Equipment M-Series Curvetine wheel to close the slot or seed trench made by the disc openers in the spring. Adkins says the product offers the best of both worlds, working through rye grass, cereal rye and vegetables with ease. It has angled teeth, so that the residue falls off and doesn’t wrap. While it wasn’t designed for cover crop use, it works great, Adkins says.

Fennig sells a Valmar 1665 air seeder, a box that can be mounted to an existing tool the producer often already has. Vertical tillage is the number one choice he recommends for mounting, although he’s seen farmers use discs as well. Droesch explains he is finding success in air carts, the advantage being that up to three full tanks plus a smaller tank can be attached.

He says this is perfect for the busy farmer who wants to apply different dry fertilizer products at variable rates, plus a cover crop in one pass through the field. He has had customers report an increase in productivity of up to 10 acres per hour. The fuel consumption may be very similar, but the time savings are great, he says.

He also says using a spray rig as a mount has been popular. One customer is using a 90-foot boom and dropping the cover crop seeds while the other crop is still in growth mode. The fall leaves then give the cover crop some protection. The machine also follows the same tracks, which were laid earlier, not running down as many crops. He says he recently overheard farmers talking about possibly putting cover crop seed down as early as June or July, while applying nitrogen. While he doesn’t know of anyone who’s done that yet, Droesch does say it could only benefit the crop more to seed it earlier. “The better the root system, the better it will hold the ground, build nutrients and organic material,” he notes.

Fennig reiterates that cover crops have to be managed and planned, so the farmer is ready for the next step in the process. “Planting the cover crop is the first thing and having the equipment ready in the spring to manage that cover crop is next,” he says. “We can help them with this.”