The cover crop movement got a significant boost recently with the creation of the Soil Health Institute, an organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C. It is focused on protecting and enhancing the vitality and productivity of farmland.
President and CEO Wayne Honeycutt says the organization will concentrate on five areas to make soil health a cornerstone of land use management decisions. They are:
- Work to set soil health standards and measurements.
- Build knowledge about economics of soil health in agriculture.
- Offer educational programs.
- Assist in policy development.
- Coordinate research in all aspects of soil and soil health.
The work of the new organization promises to add legitimacy to the management of farm and ranchland under continuous cropping/forage management. While a few high-profile growers in the U.S. have shown the use of cover crops can significantly boost agriculture’s bottom line, some mainline agronomists have ridiculed the movement.
Ray Archuleta, NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, says managing a farm or ranch for soil health is not without challenges, but points to a number of growers who are quite successful maintaining covers on their land to control soil erosion, boost soil fertility, cut inputs and improve soil biology.
“Right now, probably only 1% of growers across the U.S. consistently maintain their fields with cover crops,” he explains.
“In Indiana, where there is a lot of interest in soil health and the use of cover crops, there are times when up to 10% of the state’s farms may be covered throughout the year, but for a realistic figure, it’s more like 3-5% under cover consistently. Still, it’s growing,” he says.
Archuleta and several successful soil health “guru” growers have been on the road at crop clinics over the past several years introducing farmers to the concept and showing them the benefits of mimicking nature with diverse cover crops and parking the plow. The presentations are well attended, and with reduced commodity prices nationwide as well as the failure of oil prices across the Southwest, the message is getting through.
From the Corn Belt to the Great Plains, entrepreneurs are opening cover crop seed and service companies, and several shortline manufacturers are introducing equipment designed to improve seeding in tall covers.
In short, when you look at history, plowing and growing monocrops is a practice that’s about 5,000 years old. And, throughout history, that combination has contributed to erosion, a drop in soil organic matter and long-term reduced soil fertility.
With today’s technology, however, along with the proven attributes of undisturbed soil and flourishing soil ecology, humans are — for the first time in history — capable of repairing and replenishing farmland across the world.
Where Does My Dealership Fit?
While the movement is tiny at the moment, growing interest in cover crops promises literally several “new crops” for American agriculture as more growers plant radishes, small grains and legumes to break the plow pan rather than burn diesel fuel to pull shanks.
We asked two farmers-turned-entrepreneurs of cover-crop technology what dealers could do to enhance their business as soil health considerations begin to change farming methods.
Bill Weems, an Amarillo, Texas-area farmer and co-owner of Texas Panhandle Organics (cover crop seed and services and biological soil amendments) suggests dealers can help educate their customers by sponsoring lunch and field days with speakers and researchers familiar with soil health issues.
“You really need to seek out presenters who’ve participated, planted and witnessed the benefits of managing for soil health,” he says. “You want someone who’s been there and done that.”
Weems says supporting minimum-till management and strip-till farming is a good way to lead into the soil health concepts which trigger interest — and investment — in cover crops and the tools to handle them.
In Oklahoma, farmer Kent Watkins operates SEI Agra Tech, a farm chemical and cover crop seed and service operation in Elk City. Watkins adds the soil health components to his business after witnessing the benefits of cover crops and adopting them to his own operation.
“Equipment dealers need to become knowledgeable on cover crops and what it takes to farm with them,” Watkins says. “Seek out the shops that are building equipment to plant in tall standing cover, and try to provide such things to your customers. Concentrate on machinery for planting, spraying and harvesting.”
Both men say dealers could profit by surrounding themselves with growers and consultants who are familiar with cover crops and the challenges they present to traditional farmers.