WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Cover crops are something of a new element in agricultural operations, and they prompt a lot of questions.
“How you build them into a system that’s already sophisticated?” explained Soil and Water Conservation Society Executive Director Jim Gulliford on Wednesday. He says cover crops are “a challenge for the farmer, when we can’t necessarily predict weather and what we’d be facing each Spring.”
At the 2015 Iowa Cover Crops Conference in West Des Moines last week, agricultural industry leaders attempted to demstify cover crops, which can certainly make contributions to soil health, and can mitigate erosion, but there’s also a price tag involved. This year prices for corn and soybeans mean producers will be tightening their belts, although Director of Research at Cover Crops Solutions, Tracy Blackmer, says that doesn’t mean cover crops should be taken off the balance sheet.
“I think for the people that were just going to do them because they wanted to say they were doing them, it’s going to be a harder sell,” he explained. “But I think [for] the people who are truly studying how they’re going to improve their efficiency, if they say ‘Alright, we can actually get a 30-pound [nitrogen] credit by having the right cover crop early,’ and they’re going to help with some of the other nutrient availability like the sulfur and things; they’re going to say ‘This actually might pencil out positively.'”
Other benefits of cover crops are longer-term, according to farmer Rick Juchems, who grows his crops in Butler and Bremer counties in northeastern Iowa. Jushems says a turning point came when USDA demonstrated, on his own farm ground, that even a single pass with a field cultivator can significantly upset the organic matter in topsoil.
He believes that coming to terms with how environmental problems happen in the first place is a major obstacle preventing wider adoption of cover crops.
“We have to realize people don’t like to change,” Jushems explained. “They don’t want to admit that they were doing, not that they were wrong, but they have been doing the wrong things to the soil. They have to adjust to, ‘Okay, we need to improve the soil, but how do we do it? How do we do it without feeling bad that we did something wrong to destroy it to begin with?'”
To hear more about cover crops on Iowa farms, click the audio player above this story.