A case for cover crops: Part one

A case for cover crops: Part one

What’s old is new again as more farmers like Aaron Johnson use no-till and cover crops to rebuild fragile soils

It’s a sunny November afternoon as Aaron Johnson surveys the rolling hills of his crop and livestock farm near Orleans, Ind. Waves of green cover crops can be seen for miles upon blissful miles.

"After 20 years, no-till and now cover crops have done everything we’d hoped for,” he says with a satisfied smile.

Johnson is one of four family owner-operators at River View Farms, a business that dates back to his great grandfather in 1910. “He was really diversified – he kept trying new stuff,” Johnson says of his innovative ancestor.

"After 20 years, no-till and now cover crops have done everything we’d hoped for,” says Southern Indiana livestock and crop farmer Aaron Johnson.

Aaron and older brother Bryan, cousin Doug Johnson and Aaron’s dad Larry have stayed true to that business model. Along with corn and soybeans on 3,600 acres, the family raises 8,000 farrow-to-finish sows, 150,000 turkeys, 400,000 layers and 2.5 million pullets. The farm employs nearly 70 people so there’s never a dull moment.

By the time Aaron graduated from Purdue in 1996, the farm was 100% no till soybeans and 50% no-till corn. That continued until the last few years. Now, “the only tillage I’m doing is to incorporate manure, trying to be a better neighbor,” he says.

Wheat eye opener

The movement to add cover crops began eight years ago when the Johnsons planted wheat after row crop harvest. They would decide the following spring if the crop should be tilled under, depending on prices.

“Once we saw what was occurring on those acres – less run off, or water that did run off was clean, not brown – that made a difference in my mind,” he says. “We're on a first name basis with Indiana Department of Environmental Management since we have so much livestock, and it's neat to take pictures of rain coming off your fields and not have it be muddy.”

Johnson soon added clover and other varieties. Last fall he planted a mix of wheat, cereal rye, oats, turnips, oilseed radish, clover, and winter canola.

There’s a method to that mixture. Oats provide mycorrhiza, which helps plant nutrient uptake in the soil. Wheat’s shallow fibrous root captures nutrients in the topsoil, and the carbon helps build organic matter. Cereal rye is also high in carbon and a nitrogen scavenger, but it’s deeper rooted; oilseed radish is a natural nematicide that will help kill soy cyst nematode as well as corn nematode, and scavenge and release nitrogen in the spring; plus, its tap root digs deep to make channels for better water percolation.

“My mix is mostly to scavenge nitrogen, protect soil and build organic matter,” he says. “After soy harvest I'm still using lesser amounts of wheat and oats for soil protection, and doing more with the oilseed radish to breakup compaction and scavenge nitrogen. Clover produces nitrogen for the coming corn crop.”

By last fall he was able to reach his goal to plant a cover on all 3,600 acres. The combination of long-term no-till with covers has made a difference in the land.

“I can take a probe out there and go down 24 inches and not hit a compacted area,” he says. “Our organic matter has gone from 1.5 to 3% in the top 8 inches of soil. Our crop yields are much more consistent.”

His work with covers is getting noticed locally. In the last eight years as landowners approached him to rent their farm, many would ask if he would also add cover crops. Most of those owners were retired farmers, but even younger heirs liked what they saw each winter.

“To these landlords that was an incentive for them to rent me their land,” he says. "I tell them preserving their farm with conservation helps my long term profitability."

Johnson’s goal for newly-acquired rented land is to convert to no-till over a three-year period. “That gives me time to prove to the landowner that it works and it's good for the farm,” he says. “One 70-year-old lady liked the smell of that dirt being turned over, but she doesn't want me to do tillage now – she's seen the difference on her farm. It's confirmation that what I'm doing is good for their farm and good for the long term environment.”

Next up: How equipment upgrades solved cover crop planting issues

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