Increasing the pace and scale of farmer-led efforts
to improve water quality


Long-term tinkering brings long-term cover crop benefits

Wade Kent, a farmer and agronomist with Beck’s Hybrids, has been helping his father, Bruce, work cover crops into their Algona, Iowa farm’s continuous corn since 2014 and he still chuckles at the thought that he’s considered an expert.

“At this point in time, we do not have an ideal system,” he says, laughing.

But after several years of testing prototype seeding machinery from two manufacturers and trying aerial seeding, he’s reached one conclusion:

“Seed-to-soil contact is pretty critical for establishment,” he says. “If you can’t get ideal seed to soil contact, what you need is precipitation.”

Kent and his family are early adopters of cover crops - one practice that improves water quality. Iowa farmers planted about half a million acres of cover crops this past year. Experts estimate that around 17 million acres are eventually needed to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Kent’s experience is similar to many other farmers. Figuring out exactly what works on their farm is a several year experiment. So they want to share what they’ve learned with others.

When Kent got his Ph.D in agronomy at the University of Minnesota and later when he worked for a regional sustainability research project for Monsanto, he saw the benefits of cover crops on many types of farms. And, he knows that learning to plant cover crops requires patience.

“It takes five to ten years before you’re going to see what the full benefits of cover crops are,” he says. “In an ideal world, you’re going to see yields increase.” The unseen positive impact on water quality happens in the first year. Other benefits build from the first year on.

Yet, many seasons don’t bring ideal weather. So Kent expects cover crops to provide stable yields and more resiliency in those tough years. That’s because cover crops improve soil health over time by adding organic matter and creating a better environment for beneficial soil microbes. That healthy soil offers better water infiltration and better nutrient cycling.

If yields don’t always increase, planting cover crops “may reduce other costs,” he says. Better nutrient cycling from a healthier soil can lower fertilizer costs. And if planting cover crops reduces tillage, there’s a saving on fuel.

In the short run, the Kent farm has actually seen slight decreases in yields as Kent and his father try to work out the bugs in this new cropping system. While science also shows that cover crops help keep nutrients – both nitrate and phosphorus – on the land for producing food, feed and fuel; and out of water.

Kent advises others interested in cover crops to start small, perhaps with 20 to 50 acres. Their own farm is up to just under 100 acres with cover crops planted.

“We’re slowly trying to integrate it across more acres,” he says. “At this point in time we do not have an ideal system.”

“One thing I’ve learned with cover crops is it’s not a one-size fits all system,” he says.

Paid for in part by Iowa Corn Checkoff funds, Soybean Checkoff funds and the Iowa Pork Producers Association