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To Be or Not To Be? Communicating and Implementing Cover Crops

Doug Newton shares his perspectives on cover crops. Doug's insights are applicable to a wide range of market sectors and industries where there is complexity and uncertainty associated with new approaches.  Are you "Communicating with FINESSE"?
Doug Newton shares his perspectives on cover crops. Doug's insights are applicable to a wide range of market sectors and industries where there is complexity and uncertainty associated with new approaches.

Most of us need a reason to change. There are questions that need to be answered to facilitate that change. Sometimes the answers we seek and find only create more questions. Don’t you just hate it when that happens? On the other hand, isn’t it fun!

This article describes my experience with cover crops. The subject is more technical than many people think, especially those who do not farm for a living. I have found these same lessons about communication and technical matters applicable to many things.

My Story

On our farm, we have been 100% no-till since 1993. During those early years, we did not see a need for cover crops to be part of our production program. In 2011 a farmer friend was contacted by a soil scientist to be a part of a research project concerning cover crops and I was able to witness this project.

The plan was to use black oats as the cover crop and in the spring when the weather became suitable. The black oats would be terminated, and the cotton planted no-till into the residue. What I saw was that the black oats had changed the soil in the field. In my mind, it was such a positive change that I thought, hey, I'll take some of that. The positive change is the soil became my reason for seeking to change my operation to include cover crops.

Financial and Operations Questions

On my friend’s farm, I really loved the way cover crops, in that one season, had made such a positive impact on the soil, adding tilth to the soil along with other benefits. But these two questions kept entering into my mind.

First, I am going to buy some cover crop seed, spend more money to plant the seed, then you are going to kill it. How much sense does that make?

Second, when and how do you expect to get the cover crop planted?

Covering the Costs

On the cost of seed and planting, the USDA has two programs administered by NRCS that encourage the implementation of cover crops. That takes some of the sting out, but both EQUIP and CSP are limited.

Our farm grew to 2000 acres and the programs helped with about 300 acres. In the beginning, we did not go past the program acres, but as we saw a dramatic improvement in our farms that were using cover crops, we added outside of the program acres until the last 6 or 7 years before retirement, we were totally in cover crops.

How did we pay for those out of the program acres? As we got more and more into the cover crops, we began taking biomass samples and having them analyzed at the land grant universities to see how much fertility we had captured. We would figure a conservative fertility credit so we could reduce fertilizer a little. Warning, crops need what they need when they need it, do not short the cash crop of nutrients.

Non-financial Benefits

Did this fertility credit pay for the cover crop expenses? Nope, but it was a start. Cover crops create healthy soil that builds organic matter, allows for increased water infiltration, and feeds the creatures living under the ground, among other positives. Concerning water infiltration, it is a fact water soaks into the ground in greater amounts and rates when cover crops are in the program. The water is saved in the soil profile as opposed to running off. In a dry spell, what is an extra sip of water for the crop worth?

Operations Issues

All that is good, but when and how in the world are we to get the cover crop planted to receive the benefits? Dang good question. I will share a few things we did on our farm to resolve this problem.

We planted peanuts on our farm and one way we were able to get ahead in planting cover crops is that we spread the cover crop seed on the green peanuts prior to digging and used the digging process to plant the cover crop seed. That would get a good chunk of land out of the way during a time on the farm where we were in a little lull in the action.

We also had corn as a cash crop. We have a Phillips harrow with an air seeder mounted on it to give us a one tractor, one man, one pass way of planting cover crop. Many times, we were in the same field with this rig planting cover crop as the combine was cutting the corn. Our goal is to have the corn land planted when the harvest of the corn is done. That is another chunk done.

That leaves the bean and cotton to do. On these crops, we ran the Phillips harrow every minute we could, when the dew was on, when grandson got out of school, every chance we got. Most years, we were through with the cover crop by mid-December; however, we have planted into January.

Broader Lessons Learned

As you can see, using cover crops involves many factors, and there can be a lot of uncertainty. Cover crops and no-till farming involve more technical considerations than most people think.

I have found these three things helpful when communicating any technical matter to someone with a lot to lose if they fail.

  1. Make sure it works. With cover crops, seeing was believing.

  2. The financial aspects have to work. Do the numbers.

  3. Show someone how to do it. Even if it's a good idea and the financials seem to work, most people are unsure whether they can pull it off from an operations perspective.

Final Thoughts

The success of our farm was enhanced greatly by the use of cover crops. I encourage you to try cover crops on your farm and see if you can find a reason. I hope the answers that I found and shared have caused more questions to arise. To be or not to be? I hope you decide to be involved in cover crops and have fun doing it!


Doug Newton has farmed in South Carolina for 49 years. Recently retired, he now serves as a cover crop/wildlife consultant for Scout Seed Company. Scout Seed Company is run by real farmers who care about the community, the environment, and most importantly fellow farmers.

Doug is passionate about using, talking about, and promoting cover crops. Married to his wife, Margaret Ann, for 55 years, they now have a 9-year-old daughter keeping them young.


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