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Extend Your Grazing Season To Add Value To Cull Cows

Using late-maturing clovers to extend your grazing season has more than just financial benefits

extend your grazing season with legumes
Livestock producers in southern and more mild regions of the US still have time to extend their grazing season. For fall planting, a mixture of cool-season grasses, including annual ryegrass and small grains, with legumes will provide high quality, non-bloating biomass through the following spring.

Feed, especially during the wintertime, is the biggest cost of production for cow-calf operations. Therefore, we often see the cull cow market dive at this time of the year as producers haul open cows to the sale barn rather than feeding them for another year without a return. Historically, we see cull cow prices hold value from February to August, and then drop from October through December.

As cows are brought in from summer pastures and we enter the peak of the culling period, there’s still a window of time for southern and more mild regions to extend their grazing season to avoid the sale barn glut.
Dr. Rocky Lemus, a forage specialist with Mississippi State University Extension Service, is one of the leading experts in extending grazing seasons for beef farms in the south where feed costs typically make up 50-60 percent of the cost of production.

Below, he shares his insight into grazing platforms specifically developed to help producers take advantage of unsaturated market conditions.

Tools To Extend Your Grazing Season

For fall planting, a mixture of cool-season grasses, including annual ryegrass and small grains, with legumes will provide high quality, non-bloating biomass through the following spring.

However, varieties and species must be selected on the grazing platform’s unique environment since air and soil temperature, soil type, and moisture availability are going to determine which tools are best for an individual system.

For best germination and plant development, Dr. Lemus says planting should take place when soil temperatures are between 50°F and 65°F, which usually occur when daytime air temperatures are between 60°F and 75°F. Plant too early in summer conditions and plants may go dormant or die to exposure to fungal diseases – plant too late and they may have inconsistent germination and poor root development.

When selecting the best small grain pasture grass to include in the mixture, there are four main options for producers to choose from. Key traits are listed in an index from MSU in order of least desirable to most: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent.

Cereal Rye

cereal rye extend grazing season

The most winter-hardy option with the good grazing potential that starts in early fall and extends throughout the winter.

  • Excellent tolerance to low pH soils
  • Good tolerance to wet soils
  • Very good tolerance to drought
  • Very good disease tolerance
  • Very good grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,677 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi


oats to extend grazing season

Least winter-hardy option, with the most tolerance to wet soils. Early growth is high in protein and easily digestible.

  • Fair tolerance to low pH soils
  • Good tolerance to wet soils
  • Fair tolerance to drought
  • Very good tolerance to disease
  • Good early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,693 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi


triticale to extend grazing seaso

A cross between wheat and rye that retains the palatability of wheat and vigor of rye. However, it is not very cold tolerant, and seed can be difficult to obtain.

  • Good tolerance to low pH soils
  • Very good tolerance to wet soils
  • Good tolerance to drought
  • Very good disease tolerance
  • Good early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,523 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi.


wheat to extend grazing seaso

Dependable and adapted to a range of climates. Is very grazing tolerant and provides high quality forage.

  • Poor tolerance to low pH soils
  • Poor tolerance to wet soils
  • Fair drought tolerance
  • Good disease tolerance
  • Fair early grazing potential
  • Average seasonal biomass production of 2,551 lbs. dry matter per acre across four locations in Mississippi.

Adding a legume

legume extend grazing season

To get more bang for your buck in forage yield and quality increases, incorporating nitrogen-fixing and later maturing annual legumes such as balansa or berseem clovers will increase protein levels and biomass potential in the spring.

In 2018, Dr. Lemus measured forage biomass of oat, Lonestar annual ryegrass and wheat pastures which were broadcasted with FIXatioN balansa clover at a rate of 10 pounds per acre for two grazing periods of March 10 to April 9 and April 30 to May 17.

Wheat produced the most forage with 1,459 pounds DM per acre in period one, and 1,850 pounds DM per acre in period two. Oats followed with 1,278 pounds DM per acre in period one and 1,771 pounds DM per acre in period two. While the annual ryegrass mixture did see an increase from 1,218 pounds DM per acre in period one to 1,408 pounds DM per acre in period two, it produced almost 700 pounds DM per acre less than wheat.

According to Dr. Lemus, the biomass increase seen across all the cool-season grass systems was due to the later maturity of FIXatioN balansa clover, which provided a high quantity of forage into mid-May after the cool season grasses began to decline. Another good late-maturing option is Frosty berseem clover, which has similar physical and feeding characteristics of alfalfa, but boasts significant cold tolerance. When selecting one of these clovers, balansa provides greater reseeding potential benefits over berseem clover.

With both varieties bred to fixing high amounts of nitrogen, nitrogen fertilizer application can be dialed back to 25 units per acre to get the cool season grass going before the clover starts producing in early spring.

Just as important, the inclusion of clover has also had a positive effect on cattle performance. In a 2019 trial, cattle grazing mixtures containing 10 pounds of FIXatioN balansa clover with 60 pounds of small grains or 25 pounds of ryegrass were compared against a cattle grazing a monoculture of ryegrass seeded at 30 pounds per acre that received nitrogen.

Cattle on the control pasture of just ryegrass and nitrogen gained 330 pounds per acre. Cattle grazing wheat and balansa gained 318 pounds per acre, while cattle on the balansa and oat pasture gained 360 pounds per acre. The mixture with the greatest cattle performance was the ryegrass and balansa pasture that gained 437 pounds per acre. The ryegrass and balansa mixture also had the greatest return with a $112 per acre advantage.

Establishment and seeding rates

For seeding rates, small grains are uniform at 60-90 pounds per acre when included in a mixture of annual ryegrass at 15-25 pounds per acre. Balansa clover and berseem clovers both have very small seeds and should be included at 3-5 pounds per acre and 5-10 pounds per acre, respectively.
If broadcasting, seed rates should be at the higher end of the spectrum and can be spread with fertilizer, except for nitrogen. To increase germination, lightly disk soil beforehand.

When no-till drilling or planting into a prepared seedbed, seed rates can be dialled back. No-till drills should be set to plant about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch deep for good seed to soil contact.

If anything, consider overseeding legumes

If colder days are quickly approaching and limiting the options you have for this year, at the very least, overseeding existing pastures with a legume is an effective and quick way to give forage production an extra kick come springtime.

With a little strategic planning and the use of species and varieties chosen based on unique environmental challenges, there’s huge potential to put more dollars in your pocket by having marketing flexibility. So, rather than your forages running dry and cows going to market at the same time as all of your neighbors, you can cost-effectively hold on to them until price conditions improve.

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

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Affordable Options For Planting Green Equipment

Two experienced cover croppers share their varying approaches to green planting equipment setups

The practice of planting a cash crop directly into an immediately terminated or growing cover crop has gained a lot of popularity in recent years as producers look for ways to work through tough spring planting conditions and maximize the benefits of cover crops, says Brent Jones, Iowa Research Farm Manager for GO SEED (Twitter @GOSeed).

While this has resulted in a lot of new information being made available regarding things like which cover crop species work best with which cash crop and termination strategies, there’s a huge misconception that planting green requires significant equipment investments.

Here we’ll present a few affordable options for planting green equipment.

“Work that GO SEED has done with producers and conversations had with industry experts has shown that many people are hesitant to even consider planting green due to the belief that it is going to require them to make huge upfront equipment investments for a practice they don’t even know will work for them,”

Brent Jones, Iowa Research Farm Manager for GO SEED (Twitter @GOSeed).

“This is certainly not the case, with many producers taking a bootstrapping approach by tailoring planting practices and cover crop specie selection to work with existing equipment, or by taking the welder out and making modifications for a custom planter to work for them.”

To give producers ideas of how they can utilize existing equipment as is or make customizations, two experienced cover croppers give insight below.


Loran Steinlage, FLOLOfarms, West Union, Iowa

planting green equipment
Skilled in engineering, Loran Steinlage of FLOLOfarms in Iowa built his own drill using Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units on a custom frame fit with a MonTag seed/fertilizer box. Photo courtesy of Loran Steinlage

Farm Background:

Making the most of the short 140 growing days per year in northeast Iowa has required Loran Steinlage of FLOLOfarms to cheat the system to encourage earlier spring growth and to maintain a living crop in the ground 365 days of the year for the 750-acre farm.

“Traditionally, we were corn on corn and then corn on soybeans, but we started to evolve to companion relay cropping in 2014,” says Steinlage. “This allows us to focus on cycling plants to keep a living plant in the soil at all times to help aid in moisture management and weed suppression. Not only does this help pay the bills quicker, but it has allowed us to start planting green in a tough climate.”

For FLOLOfarms, planting green with a relay crop looks like doing a precision establishment of cover crops in the autumn following harvest and then interseeding the cash crop in the spring. However, instead of terminating the cover crop at or shortly after planting the cash crop like most traditional methods, Steinlage delays termination to maximise its benefits.

“For example, in the autumn, we’ll plant a field planned for soybeans to cereal rye. By the time we are ready for spring planting, that cover crop will only be 2-3 inches tall so delaying termination will not only allow us to take advantage of the biological benefits of the cover crop, but also its harvest potential,” he says. “Really, we are planting green and harvesting green.”

After several seasons of learning to push the limits of his system, Steinlage is ready this year to start a relay of corn and beans and vegetables with cereal rye and buckwheat – giving him five crops in two years.

“At the moment, the field is in cereal rye. This spring, we’ll plant it with corn and let the cereal rye stand until June 15. At that point, we’ll roll-crimp the cereal rye with an inter-roller to suppress it and then plant in a mix of vegetables including peas, string beans and squash, with the goal to harvest them before the corn.

Since we suppressed instead of terminated, the cereal rye will still be in the field. We will then interseed that field with beans next April – ideally, we will harvest those two crops at the same time,” he says. “If conditions allow, our next cover crop after that will be buckwheat which will act as an insectary for the following soybean crop.”

Planting Green Equipment

Drill – Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units on a custom frame

Skilled in engineering, Steinlage built 10 drills before settling on a Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units on a custom frame fitted with a MonTag seed/fertilizer box in 2016.

“Once I had a drill dialed in and figured out, I’d already be looking ahead to the next one,” he says. “This home build setup is simple, effective and versatile,” he says. “We can seed with it. We can put fertilizer down with it. Essentially that is the tool that made it all flow,” he says.

According to Steinlage, Dawn DuoSeed Cover Crop Inter-Seeder row units have been ideal due to being very low disturbance.

“You have to be careful with a lot of openers because the disturbance they cause will end up seeding weeds in with your interseed, which is the biggest thing most people struggle with,” he says. “We’ve found minimal soil disturbance to result in the best soil to seed contact. You really have to treat it like a cash crop.”

In-row roller – Dawn InRowl Roller

Through his customization work, Steinlage has gone on to work with Dawn Equipment to help develop and test new projects. A recent one was the development of the InRowl Roller – designed specifically to suppress rather than termination.

“Suppression is really important to us to support an organic system by maintaining the residue mat. By doing this, I only recently terminated clover than has been in the line since 2016,” he says.

Piece of advice:

Before anyone invests any money into equipment for planting green, Steinlage stresses the importance of getting the principles right first. And when the time is right to make upgrades, start simple and stay within budget.

For those already planting green, he advises to keep evolving and to not get locked in the same mindset.

“While something may be the best option right now, that will not always be the case as you continue to understand how you can push things further. The best explanation I heard for this recently is that we are building the plane as we’re flying it.”

For both parties, he recommends producers find a mentor that is planting green on scale – even if it is just someone to follow on Twitter – who will show you the good, bad and ugly.

“Use others to get ideas and then tailor them for what will work for you and your overall business,” he says.

Follow Steinlage on Twitter @FLOLOfarms

Using what’s available

Andrew Reuschel, Reuschel Farms, Golden, Illinois

Andrew Reuschel of Reuschel Farms in Ill., uses 1986 Kenzie 2600 and 1993 John Deere planters with double discs and two press wheels to plant green. As long as the cover crop is green at planting, these planters will cut through it like butter, he says. Photo courtesy of Andrew Reuschel.

Farm background:

Starting in the 70s, Reuschel Farms near Golden, Ill., started its first experiment with cover crops and no-till on its 1,200 acre corn and soybean operation. After a break, the Reuschel family gave cover crops another try in the early 90s. Admittedly, says fifth generation Andrew Reuschel (Twitter @AReuschel), the evolution of where they started to where they are today has not always been a pretty one.

“In the early days, I wouldn’t even classify what we were doing as cover cropping because we weren’t getting any of the benefits. At one point, we were using 3lbs of turnips with 3lbs of radishes per acre – that was insanity. We were going backward on what we wanted to achieve,” recalls Reuschel. “But it was a learning process we had to work through to get to where we are today.”

The turning point was in 2010 when the decision was made to transition from brassicas to grass-based mixtures, allowing the farm to start capturing soil health benefits.

Through continuous refining of practices and strategic decisions to achieve specific goals, present day finds Reuschel planting the entire farm green with management decisions dictated by Mother Nature instead of calendar dates. So far, this has allowed him to delay termination every year.

“For soybeans being planted into cereal rye, I plant when I plant and terminate when I terminate – the two things are separate in my mind,” he says.

While managed separately, he relies on soil moisture and the 10-day forecast for both.

“It is all about managing the variables. If things are getting hot and dry, I will have a look at the 10-day forecast to see how long I can wait until I have to terminate to maximize biomass growth, but without hurting my soil or younger plants,” he says. “If the beans are in the V1 to V2 stage and the cereal rye hasn’t headed yet but is just whipping out moisture, I will go knock it down and beat it up just to buy myself a few more days before having to chemically terminate.”

Data collected on farm show that soybean yield has a conservative 2bu per acre advantage when cereal rye is knocked down when beans reach the V2 stage, allowing for a lot of management flexibility. For corn on the other hand, which is planted into a cover crop cocktail, data shows that the cover crop needs to be knocked down and terminated at the time of planting.

“We can plant, roll and chem in any order, but the cover crop must be terminated before corn starts to emerge to give it immediate access to sunlight,”

Andrew Reuschel, Reuschel Farms near Golden, Ill.

To avoid wrapping issues when planting green, cash crops must be planted in the same direction a swath was rolled. For Reuschel, it is much simpler to plant green into a standing cover crop and then knock it down.

“Along with being able to knock the crop down without the need for GPS and maintaining perfect swath widths ahead of the planter, this also allows reels to ride on top of the soil to avoid inconsistent seed depths with inconsistent areas of biomass – another lesson learned the hard way,” says Reuschel.

Planting Green Equipment

Soybean planter – 1986 Kenzie 2600 planter with double discs and two press gauge wheels

Corn planter – 1993 John Deere 7200 planter with double discs and two press gauge wheels

When Reuschel Farms ventured into planting green, they wasted no time or money on frills and put their 1986 Kenzie 2600 and 1993 John Deere planters with double discs and two press wheels to work.

“We have the two planters since beans are planted in 15 inch spacings and corn in 30 inch spacings,” he says. “Aside from color, these are essentially the exact same models. These planters are 100% standard and good to go without any modifications. As long as the cover crop is green, these planters will just slide through it like butter. It doesn’t get any more bone stock than this.”

Roller – 20 foot I & J Cover-Crop Roller

To terminate, Reuschel rents a 20 foot I & J Cover-Crop Roller from his neighbor.

“Since it is 20 foot, it is the perfect setup to use when crimping ahead of corn. And the best part an I & J roller crimper is that hairy vetch sees it – which is notorious for wrapping – it lays down,” he says. “This really is the Cadillac of termination tools.”

Crumbling basket – Designed as a stubble tillage tool, Reuschel started renting his neighbor’s crumbling basket to terminate cereal rye and has recently purchased one of his own.

“It doesn’t do as good of a job as the I & J roller crimper, but it is much more cost-effective to rent and is effective at knocking cereal rye over,” he says.

Equipment not worth the hassle:

Residue managers – After trying multiple residue managers that have all caused huge issues with wrapping, Reuschel has found it is best to keep things simple and to leave them off.

Roller crimper planter attachment – Starting out planting green, Reuschel had his sights on eventually attaching a roller crimper to the planter to do everything in one pass. However, the more he learns about the importance of keeping planting and termination separate, particularly for soybeans, the more he is losing interest in one.

Piece of advice:

Five years into evolving his planting green system, Reuschel’s biggest piece of advice is to build flexibility and options into the entire system.

“You need to be able to make a decision at the absolute last moment you can to maximize what you’re trying to achieve because you can’t see into the future and know what conditions are going to be like two months from now,” he says.

But most importantly, he says to learn from mistakes.

“You will screw up. However, you will learn more from screwing it up than you ever could have by getting it right,” he concludes. “Keep evolving and learning new things. You’ll be amazed at how much you will be able to achieve.”

Follow Reuschel on Twitter @AReuschel

Making the most of a cover crop

While the practice of planting green is an innovative management strategy to maximize the benefits of cover crops, producers can take it a step further by tailoring variety and specie selections to support the system and subsequent cash crop.

“Selecting a variety with a later maturing date will allow for greater management flexibility so the cover crop can be terminated when best for the system rather than working around early heading dates,” says Jones.

Varieties also allow for producers to take advantage of specific traits, such as cold tolerance or nitrogen production, that can help a farm overcome unique geographical challenges and target nutrient benefits at the subsequent crop.

If producers plan to harvest a cover crop, Jones advises them to work with their seed suppliers to ensure compliance is maintained for any government programs they may be part of, and plant variety protections are not infringed.

“Certain USDA programs like EQIP, have specific harvest and utilization guidelines that must be followed to avoid being disqualified,” concludes Jones. “Using innovative management practices and genetic traits are a great way to make the most of your cover crop, but make sure they are used in a way that don’t jeopardize other critical areas of your system.”

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

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Myth-busting 8 common beliefs about cover crops

Rob Myers, Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at University of Missouri, and Jerry Hall, Director of Research for GO SEED, are myth-busting eight of the most common cover crop misconceptions.

Myths surrounding cover crops typically fall into one of two camps. The first camp is that of detriment, with concerns about available moisture being sucked up in a drought prone area or fear that cash crop yields will be hurt. The second is misplaced expectations — placing cover crops on a pedestal as the Holy Grail to simultaneously fix every production woe.

1. There will be interference with cash crop production

myth-busting corn with cover crops
Corn planted in cover crop residue (FIXatioN Balansa Clover)

“This is the most common myth out there. Understandably, farmers have a lot of acres to plant in the spring and need to do it when the weather window is right,” explains Myers.

From data collected in the 2019-2020 National Cover Crop Survey, conducted by the non-profit Conservation Technology Information Center, farmers utilizing cover crops were found to often plant earlier following a cover crop due to an improvement in field conditions. This was evident in 2019 when 19 million acres were not able to be planted due to an oversaturated spring. Farmers that were planting green into a standing cover crop reported that they were often able to get into the field when their neighbors practicing conventional tillage were not. Sometimes the difference is just a few days, but every day counts in a busy spring planting season.

“Cover crops are very beneficial in building soil structure and internal drainage systems that help deal with heavy rainfall. The cover crops root systems create channels for precipitation to flow deeper into the soil, minimizing run-off,”

Rob Myers, Director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at University of Missouri

However, making sure a cover crop doesn’t interfere with cash crop production does come with consideration. If cover crop termination is timed wrong, planting can be delayed due to the decaying cover crops creating a wet mat across fields — termination timing is especially important to get right if the cover crop was high in biomass. First time users of cover crops may want to experiment with planting green on a modest acreage before making it a common practice.

2. Cash crop yields will take a hit

In a business running on tight margins, farmers looking to integrate cover crops into their systems are right to be concerned about the impact they can have on yield. The myth about cash crops seeing a reduction in yield following cover crops typically stems from issues seen when a monoculture of cereal rye is used before corn.

“A monoculture of cereal rye has a high carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N). As a result, the microbes in the soil will utilize the nitrogen applied during the sowing of corn so that it can break down the high C:N organic material from the cereal rye. The microbes will tie up nitrogen in the soil that the corn needs early on and the corn yield can suffer as result. To avoid yield losses in corn following cereal rye, be sure to provide extra nitrogen at the time of planting corn or sow other species with the cereal rye that have a lower C:N ration, such as clovers, peas, or vetch,” says Hall. “Terminating the rye early can also help avoid nitrogen tie-up issues and potential yield loss as the C:N ratio will increase as the plant matures and the percent lignin increases.”

Aside from adjusting nitrogen applications in a case like this, yield reductions can also be avoided by simply matching the cover crop life cycle and nutrient output to the cash crop.

“For example, soybean crops will benefit from nitrogen later in the growing season. If the soybean is following a high C:N cover crop such as rye the soybean plant will respond by forming a more robust root system and form greater nodulation and associations with rhizobia. This typically results in a small yield bump following cereal rye, with the yield difference increasing over a period of years as soil health and rhizobia population in the soil improves,” explains Hall. “As a rule of thumb, high C:N covers before legumes and low C:N covers should precede grains.”

More importantly, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater over this myth and keep the overall production picture in mind. According to Myers, taking a more holistic approach will not only allow input efficiency in the short term, but our data shows that it will improve productivity in the long term due to soil health improvements.

“Don’t expect miracles, but a 3-5% increase in yield after a few years of strategic cover crop use is not out of the question. Bigger yield benefits from cover crops will likely be seen in dry years and sometimes in excessively wet years, as cover crops improve the resiliency of the cropping system through soil improvements,” says Myers.

3. Water availability will be reduced for the subsequent crop

Decades ago, there were huge concerns about cover crops sucking up too much ground moisture, reducing availability for the subsequent cash crop. According to Myers, the improvements that cover crops contribute to soil resiliency make this concern no longer relevant for most producers. Diverse root structures will aid in water and nutrient circulation while helping soils drain. Higher levels of organic matter will also serve as a sponge to lock moisture into the soil.

“While the benefits are many, producers in areas with low annual rainfall or regular extended dry spells do need to manage cover crops based on weather patterns to ensure moisture availability is not an issue for the following crop,” explains Myers. “For example, if an area is heading into a dry spring, then it is best to terminate the cover crop early to ensure adequate soil availability ahead of planting. If weather conditions are going to be more saturated, then the cover crop can be allowed to keep growing longer and can help reduce excess soil moisture.

“With that being said, it is a smart practice for any producer in any part of the country to pay attention to weather when forming a cover crop termination strategy.”

4. New pests will be introduced

With the introduction of new species in a field, comes the concern of attracting new pests.

In certain regions, slugs are at the top of the list due to residues giving them an ideal environment but adopting different management strategies will help mitigate this. If a cover crop is terminated well ahead of planting and biomass disintegrates, slugs will likely go after the emerging cash crop.

“If termination happens at planting or shortly after, slugs will typically remain on the cover crop and damage to the emerging plants will be significantly reduced,” adds Myers. “Adjusting use of insecticide seed treatments can also allow for more ground beetles that are the natural control agent for slugs.”

Another pest that draws concern is voles. Their presence varies from county to county and even farm to farm, but increased residues from cover crops or no-till can cause a surge in population.

“Fieldwork is finding that planting things like crimson clover and brassicas tend to be less attractive to voles than the likes of winter cereals such as cereal rye. Another helpful tactic for thinning out the population is to encourage birds of prey to the area by providing field edge perches,” says Myers.

Perhaps the biggest concern regarding pests is the “green bridge.” The idea of a green bridge is that some insect or disease pests may feed on the cover crop and then move from the cover crop to attacking the emerging cash crop. While researchers are still studying how much of a problem this is, early indications show that there is less of an issue with insects jumping from the cover crop to a newly emerging crop if termination happens shortly after or immediately before planting the cash crop.

Fast forward to the 2:24 to hear more about green bridges

5. Soil temperatures will remain too cold

According to Myers, this myth originated from issues northern farmers were having when first starting no-tilling and soil temperatures were slow to warm up in the spring which eventually led to the adoption of strip-tilling in cooler regions.

While dead crop residue in a no-till system can keep soil temperatures cooler in spring, it is a different ball game once cover crops are introduced. Having a living and growing crop in the ground creates a respiration system that generates energy. The extra energy in the living cover crop system and active soil microbial system usually leads to soils that are comparable in temperature to tilled fields and warmer than no-till fields with no cover crops.

6. Pollinators will be fed

Bee’s pollinating spring flowers on the GO Research Farm in Salem, Oregon

Any cover crop can provide habitat for pollinator insects, but for pollinators to have food, they need cover crops that are allowed to reach the flowering stage. In the past, many cover crops were terminated before flowering. More recently, as farmers see the benefits of letting cover crops grow longer, some cover crops are at least briefly reaching the flowering stage before termination.

“Cover crop maturity is only part of the equation. To best support a thriving habitat for pollinators, we also need to provide more biodiversity. Sometimes that is possible to do with field borders, but it will be more effective if carried throughout the entire field,” says Myers.

To do this, he recommends planting a small grain with a multi-species cover crop “cocktail” that can provide pollen sources through the summer and into the fall. Such diverse blends of cover crops, if planned well with some high biomass species, can also help speed up the process of soil health improvements.

7. Seed is too expensive

Seed cost – not as simple as it seems

In 2012, the National Cover Crop Survey found cover crop seed to cost between $20-40 per acre with a median of $25 per acre. As time has gone on and management practices have improved, farmers have significantly economized through more efficient application and drilling. In the most recent survey, cover crop seed cost is now running between $15-20 per acre on average. Some producers get costs down to as low as $10 per acre.

“When looking to cut costs, it is important to note that it does pay to buy quality seed that has been tested for germination and purity, and that comes from genetics proven to perform — otherwise, a cover crop is set up to fail before it is even in the ground,” says Hall.

“It is also important to look at seed counts per pound of seed. Sometimes there can be large variations within a species, by adjusting your seeding rate to reflect the seeds per pound you can save a substantial amount of money per acre.”

Jerry Hall, Director of Research for GO SEED

According to Myers, there is currently more money than ever before in government programs that provide cover crop incentive payments, so producers looking to reduce seed costs should also reach out to the NRCS and state programs for available opportunities.

“It’s important not to solely focus on seed costs. As mentioned before, over time cover crops will improve the soil and really start to pay for themselves. A national USDA-SARE report on cover crop economics found that cover crops typically break even in profit for corn and soybeans within three years of use, providing a net profit for years afterward,” adds Myers. “Some practices, such as using cover crops to help with herbicide-resistant weeds, deal with compaction, or for livestock grazing can speed up the profit return. Because of the long-term gains to profitability, most farmers who give cover crop a fair trial for a few years swear they will never go without them due to the positive returns that occur with time.”

8. They are the silver bullet

Rick Clark of Green America with health soil

When implemented strategically, cover crops can build organic matter, improve soil structure, combat erosion and compaction issues, fix notable amounts of nitrogen, increase water holding capability … and the list goes on. But here’s the Catch-22, cover crops cannot fix production issues overnight, and some cover crops are better than others for certain objectives such as weed control or nutrient management.

“Instead of being a silver bullet that completely fixes a single problem, cover crop’s function more like a silver shotgun providing broad coverage to gradually improve cropping system challenges,” concludes Myers. “It is best if they are used with specific goals in mind. Addressing field challenges with cover crops is going to take time, patience and strategy.”

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Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

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How planning and breaking the norm radically improved this Oklahoma beef and crop business

The way Jimmy Emmons raises crops and cattle on his Oklahoma farm is very different from what they were 26 years ago. As we settle into a new year with new resolutions, he shares how planning and discipline have transformed his business.

jimmy emmons on his Oklahoma beef and crop business
Every management decision Jimmy Emmons makes on his 2,000-acre beef and crop farm in Oklahoma revolves around soil health. This has forced him to be diligent in planning and to think outside of the box for crop marketing opportunities.

If there are two New Year’s resolutions that will benefit every single agricultural business this year, it’s ditching the “that’s the way things have always been done” and “that will never work for us” attitudes.

Take it from northwestern Oklahoma beef and crop farmer Jimmy Emmons on just how much a business can transform when setting these common beliefs aside and adopting a willingness to try new things. For his nearly 2,000-acre family-owned and operated farm, this has been integral in the survival of the business he runs with his wife, Ginger, and longtime employee, Karson Liebold.

Stepping back 26 years, the philosophies the business was operated under and the practices implemented were radically different to present day. All the cropland was on a full tillage system consisting only of alfalfa, wheat and cotton with zero rotation. Cattle were only grazed on native rangeland with no integration between the two enterprises. Input costs were high, and income was dependent on the commodity market.

Now, the Emmons family is raising 12-13 different crops a year in a no-till system that integrates cattle into cropland by grazing cover crops grown in between cash crops. A field will never see the same crop more than once in four years and what is planted is based on what fits best into the growing season and soil needs.

While this has forced Jimmy to get creative in the marketing of his crops and be diligent in planning, it has opened doors to new opportunities that have led to premiums. Not to mention, the new approach has allowed the business to significantly cut back on inputs like herbicide, labor and machinery costs while restoring soil health so much that the NRCS has recently reclassified its type from Ustifluvent (a thin, loamy, light colored soil) to Fluventic Haplustoll (a darker, more developed soil).

So, what happened to spur this kind of change? And how did they even go about doing it?

To be frank, they didn’t have a choice if they wanted to carry on their Oklahoma beef and crop farm. In their full tillage system, input costs were high and prices were unsustainable. Jimmy was also starting to gain interest in conservation practices and knew that how they were farming was detrimental to the long-term performance of their soils.

Farming with his parents at the time who were apprehensive to change, Jimmy and Ginger started slowly by no-tilling one of the fields they owned to learn about how it could be applied broadscale. While doing this, they also added winter wheat and barley to the field’s rotation to graze cattle on. After running into compaction issues, they started working closely with the NRCS and ventured into cover crops.

From their days of conventional tillage and zero crop rotation to their current system, it has been a steady and calculated process to minimize risk while continuing to make progress. With it being the turn of the year and a natural point for people to start setting goals for their businesses and making plans to see them through, Jimmy shares a few key philosophies that have been the driving success behind where his farm is today.

Ditch the “it won’t work for me” mentality

Annual rainfall for Jimmy’s farm in Dewey County, Okla., is typically feast or famine. For context, in 2011 and 2012, they averaged 8 inches annually. In May of 2014 alone, they received 23 inches. These extreme precipitation levels have a lot of producers in the area gun shy about any practices that may jeopardize moisture availability. For a long time, Jimmy was one of them, buying into the concept that cover crops would suck up any available moisture in the ground and withhold it from the next crop.

Part of his cover crop work with the NRCS has debunked this belief and proved the exact opposite. Just this year, water infiltration trials have found fields integrated with cover crops to hold 17 inches of water with no standing or runoff, filtrating as deep as 5 feet into the ground.

However, when ditching the “it won’t work for me” mentality and looking to try something different, Jimmy encourages producers to thoroughly research to find what has worked in systems and environments similar to theirs and to start small with trial work.

Always make soil resilience a priority

When making any decisions about what to grow or how to grow it, Jimmy operates under the principle that everything they do will have an impact on the land and so everything they do will be in the best interest of the soil.

To build a thriving business while keeping soil health and resilience at the center of it all, Jimmy says it has required him to learn extensively about a plant’s life cycle and its impact on things from short and long-term weed interactions to carbon sequestration. For example, anytime a crop that is low in carbon is planted, such as a winter cover with legumes, a high carbon cash crop like corn or sorghum will follow to add more carbon back into the ground.

Set your goals and then work backward

Before setting any goals, Jimmy advises fellow producers to clearly define what they are trying to achieve. Goals can then be set accordingly and used to work backward to develop a roadmap to achieving them.

Implementing a new application is not going to be the silver bullet to fix all of your challenges, so defining these clear objectives will help you determine if a new practice is moving you in the direction you want to be.

The main reason behind each field having a four-year break between each crop is to fight weeds. Whatever weed is facilitated one year, needs to be different the next. With this as a starting point, Jimmy will look at water availability and the growing window to find what options he has available and then look for marketing opportunities to determine what goes in the ground.

Make an organized plan

Managing 12-13 different crops per year on his rotation strategy requires a lot of organization to stay on track.

While there is a heightened level of planning and organization when integrating a new practice, Jimmy says producers should not be intimidated and just look at as they would with any other business planning they would do for their current system.

If you’re buying cover crop seed, the same principles apply to buying cash crop seed. If you’re planning on no-tilling for the first time, you still have to plan planting times the same as if you were conventional.

His biggest piece of advice to setting goals and making a plan to achieve them is to start by making goals for where you want to be in three to five years and then to make small changes, even if it is just taking soil samples the first year. As he says, you wouldn’t go all-in on your first hand of poker. The same principle applies to business and farming practices.

Stick to it

While planning to do something is one thing, following through with it is another. From the work he has done with other producers, Jimmy says sticking to the plan is what will determine whether or not a farm or ranch is actually going to go the distance and make improvements or whether they will go back to their security blanket and do things the way they’ve always done them.

This means if a new application isn’t going as planned, rather than reverting, look at what went wrong and what your expectation of it was and then adjust accordingly.

Look for unconventional marketing opportunities

Building soil health and getting on top of weeds by staying as far away from a monoculture system as possible has worked, but it also has to keep the lights on. By looking for unconventional market opportunities from what is historic to his area, Jimmy has been more than able to pay the bills, capturing premiums outside the commodity market.

This has led him to grow sunflowers that would be used for squirrel feed in Kentucky, to growing high spec sesame seed for McDonald’s. To capture these unique opportunities, Jimmy says to look further afield than the likes of non-GMO corn and soybeans that typically have little to no premium and to get creative in what smaller markets need. A huge area of opportunity that he sees is growing crops specifically for small food companies as the demand for products developed from ingredients grown with regenerative practices make their way into the health and wellness market.

And while identifying these opportunities seems like hard work, once you get your foot in the door, you will quickly become a go-to person.

Build a community

Twenty-six years ago, Jimmy and Ginger Emmons decided to step away from the conventional heavy tillage and limited rotation practices they were implementing due to high input costs and unsustainable markets. Starting slow with no-till, they eventually transformed their three crop system with zero rotation to a 12-13 crop system with four-year breaks between crops. For producers looking to make a change from what they are currently doing, Jimmy encourages to start building a community of like-minded people to learn from and share experiences with.

Crucial to Jimmy’s journey has been surrounding himself with like-minded people to encourage him forward and to share experiences with. When he first started, this community for him was spread across the country and required cross-country road trips to see their applications in practice. He also became immersed in his local conservation groups to build his network closer to home.

While these are still key components to his community, the adoption of social media has been a game-changer for expanding his network. By joining producer Facebook groups and engaging in conversation on Twitter (his handle is @jimmy_emmons) he has been able to bust his community wide open to learn from others while sharing his own experiences.

His biggest piece of advice for anyone wanting to step away from conventional practices is to build their community from the beginning and to keep growing it. For every neighbor you have looking over the fence saying there is no need for change, 100 others are showing you that not only is change possible, but it is also prosperous.

Read more about Jimmy Emmons and profiles in soil health

Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to the author or GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email

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What cover crops have gifted us?

Producers, researchers and cover crop experts share what cover crop gifts they are most thankful for

With Christmas just around the corner, we’ll soon be exchanging gifts with those closest to us. As we look back on another year of working with producers, researchers and technical experts to integrate cover crops into a variety of systems, many gifts they bring to the agricultural industry did not go unnoticed.

From extending grazing seasons to reducing feed and fertilizer bills, the right cover crop practices can improve long-term productivity and help create a more holistic and profitable business.

Below, farmers, researchers and cover crop experts share what cover crop gifts they are most thankful for this year:

Reducing Inputs

Thirteen years ago, David Holste of Holste Farms near Dieterich, Ill., began incorporating cover crops into his family’s 980-acre corn and soybean farm to improve soil health. What started out as an initial 80 acres of cereal rye between the corn and soybean rotation has since transitioned into a full no-till system with cash crops being planted “green” into a living, standing cover crop.

Mounting an air seeder to their 35-foot draper combine head, the Holste’s broadcast cover crop seed while they’re cutting beans, allowing the field to have an established crop all year. Not only does this reduce field traffic, but it significantly cuts down on labor requirements.

“Ahead of corn, we’ve started establishing clover so as it reaches maturity, it releases enough nitrogen to make an impact on our fertilizer costs without compromising yields. By having an established crop in the field all year, we’ve also seen a huge reduction in our erosion and weed issues.”

David Holste, Holste Farms, Dieterich, Ill.
what cover crops have gifted us
David Holste farms corn and soybeans near Dieterich, Ill. For the last eight years, the farm has been planting green into living cover crop stands. Along with seeing improvements in soil health, the system has also reduced input costs without compromising cash crop yield.

Harnessing improved genetics

Just like corn or soybean variety improvement, a lot of research and investments have gone into developing cover crop varieties with improved trait performance and consistency – something Jerry Hall, Director of Research of GO SEED has dedicated his career to.

In a recent trial by Mississippi State University, researchers assessed nitrogen availability, weed suppression and 90 day ground cover of more than 30 different cover crop varieties across four different research stations. Planted in the first week of October, cover crops were terminated on March 15 and April 1 to assess maturity impacts.

Across the board, researchers found the total nitrogen production above ground biomass to increase 19 and 27 percent and two of the locations when termination was delayed for two weeks. As a result, varieties part of the trial that were intentionally bred to be later maturing had a significant advantage over earlier maturing varieties. When looking at the 13 different clover varieties part of the trial, the latest maturing clover fixed 186 pounds of nitrogen per acre compared to a lower performing variety that only fixed 41 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

While it should be noted that weed suppression ratings (1 = no suppression, 10 = total weed suppression) was varied across the four different research stations, there were stark differences between varieties within certain specie groups at each location. At one of the locations, the top performing winter pea variety had a weed suppression rating of 7 while the lowest performing variety had a rating of 4.

“Whether you are selecting a legume or annual ryegrass, making selections based on trait performance and what will work in your environment is essential to get the most from your crop. By utilizing improved varieties, you can take advantage of specific traits – whether that be weed suppression, nitrogen contributions or maturity dates – that will serve as solutions to your unique challenges. By sowing variety not stated (VNS) seed or an industry standard variety that has no quality control oversight, you are starting your cover crop system off on the back foot before it even goes in the ground. The solutions and knowledge on how to use them are available and becoming greater every day.”

Jerry Hall, GO SEED, Director of Research
Jerry Hall, Director of Research of GO SEED has dedicated his career to developing improved varieties of cover crops. By utilizing improved varieties, producers can take advantage of specific traits that will serve as solutions to their unique challenges.

Providing ground cover in less than ideal conditions

There aren’t many crops that will survive continuously saturated conditions from regular flooding. Looking for an option that would provide high quality forage in food plots used to develop trophy deer while also surviving in a field that has been known to flood upwards of 21 times in nine months, Chris Herring of Columbus, Miss., has found improved varieties of cover crops to be his solution.

“We use an improved variety of clover that has thrived in saturated conditions that historically drown out other crops. Part of this is due to its taproots, which can be more than a foot long, which hold soil in place and improve conditions in our most heavy soils. As a bonus, the crop yields a high amount of biomass at 20-25 percent protein which is ideal for growing big bucks.”

Chris Herring, Southern Forest Timber, Columbus, Miss
Chris Herring of Columbus, Miss., is a land manager and cotton farmer. Improved varieties of clover have made it possible for him to provide deer with high quality forage in a food plot field that suffers from constant flooding.

Cutting feed costs

In the last 20 years, Jon Bansen of Double J Jersey’s near Monmouth, Ore., went from feed costs taking up 50 percent of the farm’s annual budget to it now only accounting for 10 percent. Milking 175 Jersey cows and rearing 125 youngstock replacements on his 650-acre grassland farm, the majority of the farm’s feed is grazed forage.

To make this transition work on paper and with the farm’s unique environment, Jon has utilized grazing mixtures consisting of upwards of 10 different species with grasses, forbs, herbs and legumes to extend the grazing season.

“To be truly profitable on a grazing dairy, 50 percent of feed for the entire year needs to come from grazing. So, if you feed cows 100 percent stored feed in the winter months, the grazed portion during the spring, summer, and fall needs to be in the 80-90 percent range during grazing to achieve that goal. Instead of grazing tight covers on our 30-day rotation, we take cows out when the grass is still at least five inches high to give stands more longevity. The combination of specie diversity and grazing strategy has allowed us to lengthen the grazing season and reduce irrigated water needs by two weeks on either side of the season.”

Jon Bansen, Double J Jersey’s, Monmouth, Ore.
In the last 20 years, Jon Bansen of Double J Jersey’s near Monmouth, Ore., went from feed costs taking up 50 percent of the farm’s annual budget to it now only accounting for 10 percent. Adapting his grazing system to work with soil biology has been a driving component to achieving this.

Covering your assets

Of all the gifts cover crops bring to the table, the greatest is how they work to support soil health. Cover crops are going to bulk up your land above and below ground – with biomass acting as a protective barrier between soil and harsh environmental conditions, which goes on to add organic matter back into the soil as the crop decomposes. An increase of organic matter going back into the soil is also going to feed microbes, contributing to an increase in soil health and fertility.

“Depending on the type of species in your cover crop mix, your field may benefit from nutrient contributions as the cover crop decomposes. Along with biomass, the extensive root structures of certain cover crop species will help hold soil into place to prevent wind erosion and eventually rain erosion. The same collaborative effort between roots and biomass will also reduce nutrient leaching by sequestrating things like nitrogen in the cover crop, making it available for future crops. These benefits alone will go a long way to protecting soil – your most valuable asset – while building a strong and productive foundation for the future of your business.”

Brent Jones, GO SEED, Iowa research farm manager
Brent Jones, manager of GO SEED’s Iowa based research farm, has seen huge improvements in the soil health of systems that integrate cover crops to protect soil from severe environmental conditions such as drought and floods.

Receiving your own cover crop gifts

If you want to receive your own gifts from cover crops or improve how they are already working in your system, the most important step is to invest time into educating yourself about what will work best for your unique business.

Read publications that share technical insight and producer stories, join evening Zoom calls with seed dealers that are discussing different practices, read about research and farm trials findings in your local area on the Cover Crop Information Map, and poke your head over the neighbor’s fence to learn about what they are doing.

The gifts cover crops can give to your business are countless.

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

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Dave Chance: A Cash Crop Farmer’s Advice For A Successful Cover Crop

Indiana corn and soybean farmer, Dave Chance, says mindset is crucial to having a successful cover crop

dave chance Indiana cash cropper
Dave Chance of Chance Farms, Lebanon, Ind., started integrating cover crops into his corn and soybean rotation in 2005. This year, 600 acres of the 2,200 acre farm went into prevent plant.

It’s been a tough year for many producers throughout the Midwest with record acreage going into prevent plant. Dave Chance of Chance Farms in Lebanon, Ind., was no exception this spring, drilling 600 acres of his 2,200 acre corn and soybean farm with cover crops. Unable to get any corn in the ground, Dave managed to plant 1,450 acres of soybeans.

During a cover crop tour in the Corn Belt, I had the opportunity to pick Dave’s brain about his approach to making the most of his prevent plant acres. A 14-year veteran to cover cropping, Dave has many words of wisdom from lessons learned for his fellow producers venturing into cover crops for the first time:

1. Adopt the right mindset

Rather than looking at your prevent plant acres as a one and done for a check, look at it as “a golden opportunity” to try something you wouldn’t have otherwise done. If you want your cover crop to be a success, then adopt a positive mindset and focus on the benefits they bring to the table. For example, focus on how the uplift in soil health from cover crops will positively impact the long-term production of the farm, or how legumes in the field now are potentially going to reduce nitrogen input costs next spring. Dave is adamant that this simple shift in thinking will be the difference between failure and success for people venturing into cover crops extensively for the first time this year.

2. Look for improvements that will offer long-term benefits

In a typical year, Chance Farms follows a corn and soybean rotation, with 10 percent of the acreage going into wheat each year, followed by an overwinter cover crop mixture. Dave calls this the “rehab” year, with each part of the farm going through it every seven years. This rotation was developed by accident in 2005. In an effort to get tile ditching work completed during the summer, one of the 178-acre fields was split in half and planted with wheat on one side and kept in the corn-soybean rotation on the other side. The plan was to tile ditch the wheat side and then urea top dress it in the spring. Dave and his dad got to talking about how his great grandpa used to add clover in his urea top dressing to keep weeds down and add nitrogen back in the soil. As an experiment, he decided to broadcast Canadian giant mammoth clover into the wheat. While doing tile work in the field after the clover had been established, the changes in the trial plot’s ecosystem became very apparent. The soil had a rich, healthy smell, and clover root structures were reaching 10-12 inches deep, covered in nodules. Examining the healthy stand of wheat and clover, Dave found the butterfly and bee population to be greater in the field. However, the real light bulb moment came when the wheat and clover trial plot was transitioned back into corn and yielded a 35-bushel advantage over the half of the field left in the corn-soybean rotation.

For the next three years, Dave experimented with different species of cover crops to find what was most suitable for their farm, and aggressively integrated it into the system in 2010. The cover crop “rehab” year serves many purposes to the long-term success of the cash crop system. Improvements to soil health and structure have contributed to yield increases in the following corn and soybean crops. And while it varies on the cover crop mix and weather conditions, some years have resulted in the reduction of synthetic nitrogen inputs.

3. Take advantage of the biodiversity

While most prevent plant acres will have already been established, Dave is an advocate for utilizing cover crop mixtures rather than planting a monoculture. This is the best way to benefit multiple areas of the farm system, whether it is adding organic matter back into the soil, fixing nitrogen, suppressing weeds, or improving water sequestration. His foundation ingredients to his cover crop recipes always include a legume, brassica, grass and broad leaf specie to “turn the soil on” and to choke out weeds.

With the farm’s five mixtures ranging from three to 16 species each, and more than 20 different species being used throughout the farm, Dave has placed a great deal of emphasis on selecting for various traits. According to him, variety selection has been the difference between successful years and flops on multiple occasions. Along with being able to rely on consistency of performance, he can also take advantage of specific traits bred into the varieties. Currently, two of his favorite clover varieties to include in mixtures are cold-tolerant FIXatioN Balansa Clover and Frosty Berseem Clover from Grassland Oregon. FIXatioN Balansa Clover can contribute up to 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre and yield 5 tons of dry matter in a single growing season. It’s deep taproot system also helps with compaction, soil drainage, and water infiltration. Frosty Berseem Clover has specifically been bred for the fast establishment, late maturity, and the ability to survive in temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dave strongly urges fellow producers to experiment with different mixtures for a couple years to see what works best for their unique challenges before using them aggressively. In one of his recent trials that was incorporated extensively into the farm as prevent plant acreage, a mix of oats, buckwheat and radish was broadcasted and then rolled to incorporate seed into the top 0.5 inches of soil. Then, with a 15 inch row planter, winter peas were drilled at a rate of 27 pounds per acre. The broadcasted species will act as a protective wall this winter for the peas. This spring, Dave plans to go back in and plant corn between the 15 inch rows to fully take advantage of the nitrogen contribution.

4. Don’t let the government dictate your management

Regardless of varying dates tied to prevent plant payments, Dave’s past success with cover crops has secured their existence on his budget sheet without any added government support. If you are too late to the game for prevent plant payments but still have land that needs planted, it is not too late in the season to establish a cover crop. Thanks to improved plant breeding, there are multiple fast establishing options available that have time to get going before the first autumn frost.

5. Practice patience

Dave’s final piece of advice is to look at your cover crop venture as a marathon – not a sprint. Simply putting a cover crop in the ground to collect a government check and then turn around and go back to the way you’ve always farmed won’t yield the full benefits of cover crops. It takes years of consistent management to rebuild soil health and capture the full potential of cover crops. However, by experimenting with different species and methods to figure out what is best for your system and taking advantage of the lessons learned from producers like Dave, the long-term rewards from cover crops will be worth it.

If you have any questions about which cover crop options will work best for your geography and unique challenges, give Grassland Oregon a call at 503-566 9900.

Dave Chance advocates the use of cover crop mixtures to take advantage of the benefits from multiple species. This mixture consists of 16 species, which have mainly been selected for variety traits to ensure consistency of performance.
Selecting for variety traits has been the difference between cover crop success and failure on many occasions for Chance Farms. Two of his favorite legumes to include in mixtures are FIXatioN Balansa Clover and Frosty Berseem Clover from Grassland Oregon. Both have been bred to fix notable amounts of nitrogen and to produce significant biomass while surviving in sub degree temperatures.

To download high resolution images from this article,  click HERE.

Editor’s note:

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

Click HERE for a printable PDF version of this article.

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Covering your assets during drought

over crops protect soil and retain water

Cover crop biomass locks in moisture and regulates soil temperature during drought. In a trial conducted at the Ewing Demonstration Center in Illinois, FIXatioN Balansa clover had a green biomass yield of 96,154 pounds per acre.

Benjamin Franklin was right on the money about all of us being able to count on death and taxes at some point in time, but he overlooked one other guarantee – drought. Even now, just a few months after certain parts of the country have seen waters recede following unprecedented flooding this spring, the United States Drought Monitor is showing areas of drought pop up in the Pacific Northwest, Corn Belt, Southeast and majority of Texas and Oklahoma.

Whether or not your farm or ranch is dealing with drought right now, it will be something you’ll have to take head-on in the future. So, how do cover crops fit into navigating periods of drought? I like to look at them as a combination of a bodybuilder, bodyguard and insurance agent all working around the clock to protect your most valuable assets – your soil.


Cover crops are going to bulk up your land above and below ground. Biomass, or your cover crop top growth, is going to add organic matter back into the soil as it decomposes. In a recent study by Clemson University, seven different cover crop mixture plots were compared with weed-free fallow and weedy fallow plots. Monthly biomass measurements were recorded, and biweekly soil measurements were taken in depths of 10, 20, 30, 40, 60 and 100 centimeters during the growing season and again one month after termination. Compared to the weed-free and weedy fallow plots, researchers found all seven cover crop treatments to retain more, or equal amounts of moisture – making it available for future growing seasons.

An increase of organic matter going back into the soil is also going to feed microbes, contributing to an increase in soil health and fertility. Depending on the type of species in your cover crop mix, your field may benefit from nutrient contributions as the cover crop decomposes.

In a trial conducted at the Ewing Demonstration Center in Illinois, FIXatioN Balansa clover had a green biomass yield of 96,154 pounds per acre. Once it began to decompose, FIXatioN Balansa clover added 269 pounds of nitrogen per acre over a period of six and a half months, improving the soil nitrogen contribution and soil ammonium ppm by 40 percent and 80 percent, respectively.

Unlike legumes, grass has a high carbon to nitrogen ratio – meaning it takes longer to decompose. When following corn with another grass, like cereal rye, the higher carbon to nitrogen ratio will tie up any fixed nitrogen during the following corn planting season. However, a side dressing of nitrogen at the time of planting will help speed up decomposition and give the corn a head start until the nitrogen becomes available later in the growing season.


In times of drought, cover crop biomass is the protective barrier between soil and Mother Nature. Research has found greater amounts of biomass at termination make the cover crop significantly more effective at weed suppression, blocking sunlight from reaching the soil to keep weeds from germinating.

Along with biomass, the extensive root structures of certain cover crop species will help hold soil into place to prevent wind erosion and eventually rain erosion. The same collaborative effort between roots and biomass will also reduce nutrient leaching by sequestrating things like nitrogen in the cover crop, making it available for future crops.

Most importantly, during times of drought, your cover crop is going to lock moisture into place by regulating soil temperature and protecting the surface area from evaporation, while increased soil organic matter improves water holding capacity.

Insurance agent

Incorporating cover crops into your operation is an effective way to mitigate the impact of future dry periods. However, a good insurance policy is needed to ensure the best management practices are being made so your bodybuilder and bodyguard perform at their maximum potential.

This begins with identifying what your cover crop goals are, and then develop a game plan for how you will achieve them.

For example, if you want a cover crop that will perform consistently for particular traits, choose varieties that have been bred and tested to do so, rather than taking a chance on variety not stated seed. Or, if drought conditions are developing, order seed ahead of time and have it stored in the barn ready to go. So, when a timely rain is in the forecast, you’re ready to get into the field and cover your assets.

If you have any questions about which cover crop options will work best for your geography and unique challenges, give Grassland Oregon a call at 503-566 9900.

Species like cereal rye, that have a high carbon to nitrogen ratio, will tie up fixed nitrogen during the beginning of subsequent planting season, becoming available later on in the growing season as it decomposes.
This stand of corn is benefiting from the low carbon to nitrogen ratio of FIXatioN Balansa Clover as it decomposes rapidly, immediately providing nitrogen.

To download high resolution images from this article,  click HERE.

Editor’s note:

Cover Crop Corner is a new educational column from forage application company Grassland Oregon and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. To be added to the distribution list, please email

Click HERE for a printable PDF version of this article.

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Part Two: The do’s and don’ts of setting up farm trials

In part two of a two-part series about setting up farm trials, cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt discusses useful data points and considerations.

Trial work is integral to the work cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt does to improve soil health and growing conditions for a more holistic and profitable approach to farming.

Last month, southeast Iowa cash and livestock producer Michael Vittetoe shared his insight into how his family farm has used cover crop trials to integrate new practices into their operation. In part two of this two-part Cover Crop Corner series, cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt discusses key factors producers need to consider before setting up a trial, and what data to collect.

Throughout his career, David has helped countless agricultural producers in his position with Understanding Ag. The consultancy group specializes in helping all sectors of agriculture adopt regenerative practices throughout Mexico, the US and Canada.

Cover crops are integral to David’s work of improving soil health and growing conditions for a more holistic and profitable approach to farming. One recent example that comes to mind is helping a corn producer reduce input costs by $45 per acre while only giving up a 5bu per acre yield. When pinning the reduction of the input costs against the yield, the profit margin on the new approach was significantly greater than chasing after yield. And this was without configuring the production benefits the improved soil status would have long term.

Farm trials are an integral part of David’s work to identify what species work in specific environments and what unique benefits they provide.

The first priority to setting up a successful cover crop trial is for all members of the business to agree on what goals they are trying to achieve and specific practices they are willing to implement, says cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt.


Before any trial work begins, David says it is essential that all members of the business sit down and decide what goals they are trying to achieve with cover crops and specific practices. Having everyone on the same page as to what the priorities are can be the difference between a “successful” trial and a “failure.” Once everyone has similar priorities, trials need to be set up to specifically meet those goals.


Farm trials need to be done on land that is representative of the entire farm, so it is applicable large scale. David says this should be 10% of the entire farm’s acreage, conducted on average land. He has seen producers take poor land out of production to use for trials, which automatically set them up for failure. If possible, the land should be split in the same field for improved visual comparisons and more equality in growing conditions.


While producers need to be collecting data based on their goals, they also need to be keeping an eye on what else is happening in the plot. If they’ve set the trial up for grazing, for example, they need to make note of how this impacts any other challenges the farm may have, such as water holding capacity’s impact on erosion. Comparing the different interactions will help determine if the trialled practice is going to benefit the system or elevate smaller issues.


Aside from the standard suite of performance data producers should be collecting, such as maturity dates, yield and required inputs, David is a staunch proponent of soil testing at multiple points throughout the trials. Prior to starting the trial, samples are sent to the lab for a Haney Test to assess total organic carbon, microbial biomass and mineralizable nitrogen. He also sends samples in for a PLFA (phospholipid fatty acids) test to determine proportions of microbial types. All these factors are representative of the soil’s overall health.

Mid-season, a 3×3 foot square of biomass is removed and sent to the lab to understand the C:N ratio and to look at the nutrient uptake each species is bringing to the table.

Later in the season and 30 days after termination, the same 3×3 foot square from the previously sampled ground is removed to compare results. At each of these steps, another Haney Test and PLFA are conducted to see how the different plots impacted soil microbes and nutrient uptake.


While variables are unavoidable, data makes them easier to weigh. When starting a trial, record data on the previous crop, including yield, inputs and when they were applied and any known soil health and moisture measurements.

To accurately determine how a plot is performing, David advises trials are repeated for at least three years in the same fields. Within all the data collected, weather events should be tracked to pinpoint how they impacted each crop.


Three years of collecting data will give hard evidence if a practice is working or not, but sometimes only one or two are needed. If a trial goes well and a producer is confident that it will integrate well broad scale, David says to go ahead and start implementing it into production. On the flip side, if things haven’t gone exactly as hoped but it is showing potential, tweak the trial as necessary and continue collecting data on it.


It’s important to realize that cover crops are not the silver bullet to everything and just because a practice worked for someone else doesn’t mean that it will necessarily work for you in the same way. And when it comes to a trial “failure”, David stresses that context is everything.

First off, if trialling a practice that someone you read about had good results with or even a neighbor is seeing success with, it is important to understand what that person did and how it fits into their operation. Trying what others have is a good way to learn about new applications, but it must be adjusted to fit your unique environment, goals and business needs.

Secondly, go back through the data to understand why it “failed”. Should you have gone with a different variety? Were there significant weather events that stressed the crops out? Before scrapping it altogether, go back through the data and identify where adjustments can be made and then try again.


Without a doubt, dedicating resources to cover crop trials is an effective way to integrate new applications into your business and optimize achievable benefits.

Recently, GO SEED launched the Cover Crop Information Map to centralize hundreds of pieces of industry research and farm trial data into one location. Found at, users can access raw data on more than 26 different topics of research in a specific geographical location. As David mentioned in his last point, this raw data can give producers more context to the research, allowing them to adapt practices to their own unique challenges, allowing them to reach their own goals more effectively.

To download high resolution images from this article,  click HERE.

Brent Jones
Manager of Iowa Research Branch
Find Brent on Twitter! @Swarm1

Editorial Note:

Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED (formally known as Grassland Oregon) and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to the author or GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email

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Part One: The do’s and don’ts of setting up farm trials

In part one of a two-part series about setting up farm trials, row crop and livestock farmer Michael Vittetoe shares his insight.

Cover crop trials are an essential process to Michael Vittetoe’s family’s row crop and livestock farm in southeast Iowa. When it comes to setting up a trial, Michael’s #1 piece of advice is to keep it simple and manageable. Photo courtesy of Meredith Henderson.

Throughout our Cover Crop Corner series, a common denominator has shown up in all the producers that we’ve featured – the use of on farm trials to optimize cover crop performance and ensure successful integration into broad practice.

While this will look different for everyone, whether it be a produce farmer in Georgia, beef stocker operator in Kansas or a corn farmer in Minnesota – or a divide as simple as the neighbor’s fence – there are a few do’s and don’ts for everyone to keep in mind when setting up their own trials.

To get perspective of how this should be done to keep things practical, useful and efficient, we spoke to cash crop and livestock farmer Michael Vittetoe and cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt to get their insight. In part one of this two-part series, Michael shares how cover crop trials have changed the way the farm operates and his tips for fellow producers.


For the last seven years, Michael’s family farm in southeast Iowa has been utilizing cover crops in their 1,400-acre corn and soybean operation which has a newly introduced herd of beef cattle.

Early adopters of no-till cultivation in the 80s, soil health has long been a point of focus for the multi-generational farm. Seven years ago, they dipped their toes into the use of cover crops with 40-acres of cereal rye in a hilly field to get on top of erosion issues. Present-day, cover crops are used on 850-acres, with practices and multi-specie seed mixes tailored to suit the farm’s individual enterprises.

One of the most notable changes in their use of cover crops has been delaying the termination of cereal rye ahead of soybeans until the rye enters anthesis (pollination), regardless of soybean planting date. Previously, the cereal rye was burned down at planting, or even up to two weeks ahead of planting. The added weed suppression and biomass from a more mature cover crop has helped slash herbicide costs from $40-$50 per acre to $5-$25 per acre. The farm has also enjoyed the benefits of getting into fields timely due to improved soil structure and water infiltration.

A former engineer, Michael did not have a lot of what he calls the “nitty-gritty knowledge” about agriculture when he returned to the family farm six years ago. But what he did have was an understanding of how essential data is to making production progress.

At present, the farm has 80-acres dedicated to trials that are run for their own data and in collaboration with organizations like the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the Iowa Soybean Association. While there is a lot that influences the farm’s trials, Michael conducts them based on five core principles:

  1. Keep it simple and manageable – While trials are tools to find out what type of varieties work well in your environment, they are also useful to test out what management practices can feasibly be applied. If it is overly complicated in a trial, it is going to be even worse large scale. The same principle should be applied to setting up the trial and collecting data. Collect data that is meaningful to what you are trying to achieve and organize it in a way that makes it easy for you to analyze.
  2. Base plot dimensions on your equipment size – All of Michael’s test trip widths are configured to work with his equipment dimensions. Test plots are in 120 foot strips to match the sprayer width, and is also compatible with planting and harvest equipment. This has allowed the farm to easily manage test plots.
  3. Collect multiple data points – As mentioned in point #2, collected data should be meaningful to what the trial is trying to achieve. One of Michael’s top priorities is to improve soil health, so he works with professionals to take soil samples and send them off for analysis. While he’s diligent about collecting yield, growth, input and rainfall data, he’s found a huge benefit of keeping visual notes and regularly photographs plots to see how different treatments react to different weather patterns. In the future, he plans to start using photos to compare results from plant tissue sampling to get a better understanding of how well performing plants in their environment should physically look.
  4. Make sure it is scalable – If the practice isn’t scalable, then it shouldn’t even be trialled. If a trial is showing positive results, Michael will only integrate it to the extent of his comfort level. If it is something that has gone really well and appears to have longevity, they will go ahead and implement it on a broad scale. If it is something that shows promise, but he isn’t 100% convinced, then they will only integrate it on a small acreage to see how it performs in production.
  5. Don’t worry what the neighbors think – Cropping systems outside the status quo are a sure way to get the neighbors talking. Focus on understanding why things work (or don’t work), and the profitability of your operation over the talk at the coffee shop.

While some of the trials haven’t always gone to plan or led to the results that they expected, trials have given the business data points to make calculated decisions for their management protocols. This has allowed the farm to address erosion, reduce weed pressure and improve soil health while also increasing their profit margin.

In part two of this two-part series, cover crop consultant David Kleinschmidt shares what specific data points producers should be collecting and things to consider prior to setting up a trial.

These two photos were taken on July 14, 2020 and show current results of a trial experimenting with cereal rye termination dates in fields planted with soybeans. One treatment terminated the cereal rye in June. The other treatment was relay cropped and cereal rye was allowed to mature. Photos courtesy of Michael Vittetoe.

Brent Jones
Manager of Iowa Research Branch
Find Brent on Twitter! @Swarm1

Editorial Note:

Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED (formally known as Grassland Oregon) and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to the author or GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email

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Tapping into your cover crop resources

Without a doubt, one of the best ways to progress is to learn from others. Here are a few resources to do that.

Whether it be attending a local field day or reaching out to someone you’ve read about in an article, speaking directly to farmers utilizing cover crops is one of the most effective ways to expand your knowledge.

From selecting the right cover crop variety to zeroing in on management practices, cover crops can be incredibly complex. However, to truly harness their full potential, it is essential to invest the time into learning more about them.

Here are a few resources worth tapping into to expand your cover crop knowledge:

Expand your network

A crucial first step is to expand the network of people you interact with. This opens huge opportunities to get new application ideas and to learn what has and hasn’t worked for other cover crop users.

On a local level, look for regional field days to attend to engage with cover crop growers in your area. Chances are, they will have some of the same geographical challenges and can offer their solutions.

It’s also worth looking into what regional Cover Crop Councils have to offer. Funded by the USDA NRCS and SARE, there are currently four (Midwest Cover Crop Council, Northeast Cover Crop Council, Southern Cover Crop Council and Western Cover Crop Council) that have online resources available to address the needs of their specific areas. Most of them hold annual conferences, detailing new research and management practices.

If you’re able to go further afield, there are several fantastic national conferences each year chocked full of soil health experts and innovative farmers. Conferences like Soil Health U and No-Till on the Plains give attendants access to the most innovative knowledge while providing endless networking opportunities.

Seek expert advice

Speaking of learning from others, this doesn’t have to be limited to networking at events. Are there producers in your area that are notable for their expertise and data? Did you read an interesting article about a producer’s application practices and success? Did you see a Tweet or a Facebook post from someone sharing their practices? Reach out to them and pick their brain. From my experience, people tend to be more than happy to share their knowledge and can offer a lot of practical insight.

There are also several professionals that offer their services for free. For example, your local seed supplier will have access to field trials and producers doing innovative things. There is also your local NRCS and Extension services who are there to provide you with advice, or access to those with the information you require.

If you want a more tailored and one-on-one approach, you may need to be prepared to pay a small fee. There is an increasing number of local farmers with years of cover cropping experience starting their own consultancy practices to provide growers with hands-on advice. Certified Crop Advisors are also now a great resource with soil health and cover crop practices recently being included in their training.

Go online

While what you learn in person from fellow cover crop growers and experts carries a lot of weight, you can also tap into that knowledge online.

Social media has also been a great tool to see how producers throughout the world are utilizing cover crops and to see what is and isn’t working. Pages like “Everything Cover Crops” and “Cover Crops and Soil Building” on Facebook have thousands of members from different parts of the world sharing practices and results every day. If you have questions about things like termination or what species work well to improve soil and feed grazing livestock, there are several people willing to share their insight.

If you are looking for research or farm trial data to review, check out the recently launched Cover Crop Information Map. Found on and featuring an interactive map of the United States, users can narrow down available research and farm trial findings based on their geographical region and topic of interest. Organized into 26 different topic areas, which include inter-seeding, nutrient management and erosion control, users can easily find information. One of the best parts of the platform is linking to farm trial data. So, in a search about planting green, users can access raw data from research studies along with results from a farmer – allowing users to tailor findings and methods to their own unique system.

A great way to expand your network is to attend local field days. Not only does this allow you to see successful applications of different cover crops, but it also creates opportunities to learn from fellow producers in your area.

Investing time into data

Perhaps one of the most crucial parts to improving your cover crop practices is an investment into your own farm data to help with future decision making. Too often, farmers that I speak to that have been using cover crops for multiple years don’t have any data. Understanding what you’ve done in the past in order to build on successes and eliminate the possibility of repeating less successful tactics is critical to optimizing success and profitability.

By sharing this data, whether it is on the Cover Crop Information Map platform, as a speaker at a regional open day or even just as you’re catching up with neighbors, the industry can make faster advancements by having more information to build on.

Risa Demasi
Co-founder, Partner, Director of Marketing
Find Risa on Twitter! @SeedNerd

Editorial Note:

Cover Crop Corner is an educational column from forage application company GO SEED (formally known as Grassland Oregon) and free for print or digital distribution by media outlets. We ask that attributions be made to the author or GO SEED when published. For more information or to be added to the distribution list, please email