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According to a panel of Iowa farmers, agronomists and soil conservationists, cover crops such as rye, wheat and clover are environmentally beneficial and with proper management won’t inhibit yields on various crop production systems, including no-till and organic farming. At a recent Cover Crops Workshop in Jefferson, Iowa, dozens gathered to discuss and learn more about the many benefits and varieties of cover crops, and ways to successfully plant and manage them.
Research by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (NLAE) shows cover crops planted in the fall between harvest and planting of spring crops help reduce soil erosion, limit nitrogen leaching, suppress weeds, increase soil organic matter and improve overall soil quality. Workshop panel member Earl Hafner of Panora says a mix of cover crops serve a vital purpose for his organic row crop and livestock operation. Since Hafner practices some tillage, his soils have less crop residue cover to benefit earthworms. Cover crops have been an important part of Steve Berger’s no-till farming operation in Washington County longer than 10 years. Jeremy Singer, a research agronomist with NLAE, promotes winter hardy cereal cover crops, like rye, winter wheat and triticale (cereal rye and winter wheat cross) because they are easy to establish, relatively inexpensive, and provide erosion control in the fall and spring.

Singer agrees with Berger that, over the long-term, cover crops will not hurt cash crop yields.
The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is offering three years of financial assistance to eligible producers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Plan (EQIP) to help offset the cost of introducing cover crops. Limited Resource Producers, Beginning Farmers, Tribal Farmers and Socially Disadvantaged Producers are eligible for a higher payment rate. Small grain cover crops increase surface cover, anchor corn and soybean residues, and increase water infiltration.
He plants winter hardy grains (cereal rye), winter hardy legumes (red clover and hairy vetch), and forage covers (radishes). Berger grows corn and soybeans on about 2,500 acres, where he has no-tilled for more than 30 years. Several cover crops, like turnips and radishes, are also suitable for grazing by livestock and wildlife.

Hafner says many different types of root systems improve soil quality and its holding capacity. He says a rye cover crop combined with no-till helps control erosion, promotes root growth, and even improves row crop production. Rye typically grows to 4-6 inches before Berger plants corn, and 8-10 inches before planting soybeans.

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