HARRISONBURG, Va. — Cover cropping was the focus of the morning agenda at the 2014 Harrisonburg conference of the Virginia No-Till Alliance Tuesday at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds.
Dave Brandt, a farmer from Fairfield County, Ohio, began the day's program with a presentation on his use of cover crops to improve his soil quality, boost crop yields and reduce operating expenses. Brandt told the audience he first tried no-till farming in 1971, was using the practice on every acre he farmed within two years, and in 1978, began using single-species cover cropping.
"Now we're really focusing on using multiple species," said Brandt, who uses up to a dozen or more species in his mixes.
He farms 1,200 acres just southeast of Columbus, Ohio.
Brandt talked about the advantages of using various cover crop species and the advantages of mixed stands as compared to single-species cover crops. Planting tillage radishes alongside a legume such as winter peas, for example, will give the radishes more nitrogen to grow deeper, larger tubers and taproots, and by using that nitrogen, the radishes encourage the peas to fix even more nitrogen into the soil, Brandt said.
Over the past four-plus decades, organic matter in his soil has increased from 0.5 percent to more than 7 percent, allowing it to hold more than 7 inches of rain — at 0.5 percent, Brandt said the soil would hold less than 2 inches of rain. In 2012, when he received less than 9 inches of rain all year, Brandt's improved soil allowed him to harvest close to 180 bushels of corn per acre.
Brandt, who has quit using fertilizer and herbicides, also showed several slides comparing his lower cost of production with no-tillage and cover crops, to conventional agronomic recommendations. With total fixed and variable input costs at well below $3 per bushel for corn crops planted after a winter cover crop mix, he said his profits aren't threatened when prices fall to $4.50 per bushel, like they have recently.
Matt Yancey, executive secretary of the Virginia No-Till Alliance and a crop and soil specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, said the combination of no-till and cover crops make for a "nice marriage of practices" that together can allow farmers to achieve good results.
Attendee Nelson Wenger said he's been using no-till and cover crops on his farm in Dayton, Va., although neither has allowed him to cut back on his chemical inputs as of yet. Wenger said he attended the conference to learn more about how the practices could allow him to minimize his fertilizer and chemical applications, while at the same time improve his soil structure.
Before lunch, a number of Shenandoah Valley farmers discussed their own experiences with cover cropping. Richard Clemmer, who has a cow-calf operation in Rockbridge County, spoke about his experience last fall planting dual-purpose cover crops to improve his soil, while also providing forage for his cattle. Clemmer planted several different cover crop mixes in strips in a 25-acre pasture — he used various combinations of rye, oats, turnips, ryegrass and crimson clover — and used temporary fencing to allow 60 cows and their calves to graze. He estimated he saved several thousand dollars in hay costs over the course of the month that his cattle were on that pasture.
Brandt and others also spoke to the challenges of no-tilling and using cover crops.
"You need to be committed to cover crops," Brandt said. "Yes, there are problems. It's not as easy as conventional tillage."
Other challenges can include timing of planting, particularly when a late corn harvest leaves little time to establish a good winter stand, the potential for crop residue to cause increased slug pressure in the spring, and more.
Still “we never used a cover crop that doesn't make us money," Brandt said at the end of his talk. "We can change the soil more rapidly than anybody can realize it can be done."