“We want to bring farmers knowledge, but also opportunities to address economic barriers, equipment barriers and other hurdles that they might face.”
— Tyler Williams, Sustainable Systems Agronomist, Bayer Sustainable Agronomy Team
In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed, Tyler Williams and Zach Larson, sustainable systems agronomists with Bayer, share details on a program called ForGround, which aims to assist and provide support to farmers who are adopting or expanding regenerative agriculture practices. Williams and Larson also chat about what factors they consider when providing advice to farmers in a variety of different regions.
The Cover Crop Strategies podcast series is brought to you by GO Seed.
Get more Nitrogen with FIXatioN Balansa, FROSTY Berseem, eNhance Persian, and Kentucky Pride Crimson, GO Seed’s high-performing annual clovers. Unrivaled for their Nitrogen contributions, these clovers are exceptionally drought and cold tolerant. GO Seed rigorously vets their products in a wide range of conditions to ensure confidence in their performance. Visit GOSeed.com to learn how these clovers can lower input costs, increase yields, and mitigate climate change. GOSeed.com – home of Novel Solutions for your Growing Concerns.
Welcome to the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed. I'm Mackane Vogel, assistant editor at Cover Crop Strategies. In this episode, Tyler Williams and Zach Larson, two sustainable systems agronomists with Bayer, share details on a program called ForGround, which aims to provide support to farmers who are adopting or expanding regenerative agricultural practices.
All right. I have Zach Larson and Tyler Williams with me. If you guys want to just start out and kind of tell our listeners a little bit about yourselves, just a brief introduction, and maybe how you got into agriculture and sort of where you're at now, how you got there.
Yeah, I guess I can go ahead and start it off. I'm Tyler Williams. I'm one of the sustainable systems agronomists within the Bayer sustainable agronomy team. I'm located in Lincoln, Nebraska and really been working with this program for about a year and a half now. Formally I was a field scientist within our seed production group, and then I spent a number of years at the University of Nebraska, really focused on climate and agriculture. That's where most of my background has come from is the weather climate side and then applying the agronomic component to it. I grew up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere Nebraska. So now I live in the big city.
I'm Tyler's counterpart, Zach Larson. I'm in State College, Pennsylvania, so the middle of the state. My journey into soil health started after I decided to switch directions career-wise a little bit, and after getting my master's degree in soil science, started with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
I was fortunate to get on just at a time when they were really starting to, I think, think about and talk about soil health. We really had a lot of great starts with a lot of great people from that organization at that point in time. It really got me started in wanting to learn more and wanting to work more with folks. And then after moving to Penn State Extension for a while, I then landed here at Bayer about a year and a half ago as well, supporting their carbon program as a sustainable systems agronomist.
All right. Yeah, thanks guys. Just for everyone, I think what we're going to be talking a lot about today is this program Bayer has called ForGround. Before we get into it, obviously I think all of our listeners understand the common issue that a lot of growers have of wanting to adopt new practices, but there's a lot of hurdles around that. Sometimes it's financial hurdles, sometimes it can have to do with the weather, the region that you're growing in.
But I guess why don't we start out, if one of you wants to just give us a brief synopsis of what ForGround is for those who have not heard of it, and then we can kind of go from there.
All right. Yeah, so really ForGround the purpose is to address all the things that you mentioned. We started this about a year ago, really kind of focused on three areas. One, the agronomic and sort of the science behind what we're doing. A lot of what Zach's expertise are in, the science behind soil health and cover crops, especially that's kind of what our team's designed to do, is how can we help agronomically make some of these things happen? We have a team focused around that, resources, content, things that we can put together to help growers do that.
The other piece that we hear a lot about it, as you mentioned, was sort of the economics and sort some of the barriers financially upfront that it takes to be a part of it. We work with a number of folks and try to collaborate and bring discounts and resources and services or tools that partners can come in and say, "Hey, we can provide this service to growers." They allow our growers to have discounts for some of those services, again, just to help them take that next step and reduce that barrier to entry.
And then the last thing that usually gets a lot of the buzz and the attention at least as of late, is sort of that revenue stream or that added straight income that can come from adopting these practices. And so that's, again, another key component of ForGround, is bringing those revenue opportunities that can get growers over those hurdles that it might take to start something or help reduce the risk or take off a little bit of the sting if you're going to make that first purchase. We talk a little bit more about that, but that sort of new revenue is really something new that's really taken off over the last couple years and really gets a lot of the interest.
You mentioned started about a year ago. Is that how long it's been officially up and running?
Yep. The ForGround platform's been... Version one has been going since middle of August of 2022. We've had a Bayer Carbon Program and a pilot program for a couple years, which is again kind of a piece of ForGround, but really the purpose is that larger, broader platform. It doesn't cost anything. It's kind of come in, get in and see and explore where growers want to be.
Now that you guys are about a year into it, I'm kind of curious what types of customers, and maybe it's a little of both, but are these mostly people that are kind of brand new to cover crops and no-till? Are you seeing a lot of people who've maybe tried it before but just need that extra kind of help to make sure it's done right and that they're not going to end up paying for it in the long run?
Yeah. From really what I've seen, we get a little of both. We have a number of them that are historic growers as well. Part of our initial program allowed some historic adoption of some of those practices, so that helps.
We really get a lot of interest, at least I do, from growers that have either been doing it or been thinking about it, and how can they take that next step and that next level. Zach's really the one that provides a lot of that information to them. But we get a big range, especially now that there's more and more buzz around the income and the revenue from it.
Sure. And these are growers from all over, or is it kind of one main region you're seeing a lot of?
Pretty much anything between Nebraska, North Dakota, over to all the way to the East Coast. That's the primary area. For ForGround you can be anywhere and sign up. So we do get people from coast to coast that sign up for it, but we get a lot of interest from the corn, soy, wheat rotation type folks. Zach might have something else to add to that, but that's kind of generally where I see them.
No, I agree. I think you hit it pretty well, Tyler.
What are some things, what are some of the challenges and I guess opportunities too, that a lot of these farmers are kind of facing, some of the more specific things that you guys start to help them with when they start these programs with you?
I think what we're seeing a little bit in terms of challenges, and I think this is now maybe the result of the success of getting the word out of, of getting education out from the success of extension, the success of popular press, even the success of farmers talking to other farmers, is that it's very easy to get excited and maybe emulate someone else's system rather than stepping back and figuring out what's right for your system.
We've kind of seen this going into it sometimes, is that you have someone that may not have a goal in mind or may not have a way to measure what they want to get to. Really helped out doing all these [inaudible] now in also offsetting the financial risks that there's just kind of [inaudible], but maybe we're not asking that right question of what am I actually trying to stall by doing cover crops?
I think that's been one of the ways that we sometimes have to walk people through and help people out is figure out what are you actually trying to achieve and how are you going to measure success when you get to that point one year in, five years in, whatever it is, kind of help you look back at what you just did and say, "Hey, am I actually getting to where I want to be by doing this or do I have to change course in some manner, plant something different, change how I'm managing what I'm doing?"
I think that's one of the biggest things. It's not always necessarily a very technical thing, it's just getting folks to think about their system and what's going to work for them and address the needs that they have.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You mentioned people wanting to emulate other systems that they've seen. Obviously we all know no two farms are the same. I'm kind of curious how you guys have approached the difference in climate of different clients. I know Tyler, I think you have some background in meteorology, extreme weather systems too. How does that kind of change the way that you guys look at some of these systems and whether you're in Nebraska with one client or you could be somewhere else that's maybe not as dry? How does that kind of factor in?
Yeah, I mean it all fits into a little bit even what Zach mentioned as far as the system. Geography plays a huge role in it. You get further west in Nebraska, no-till is pretty commonplace. When moisture is limiting, no-till has made a lot of sense for a long time. Now we have new technology, new tools. That's what we're doing is expanding those options to other areas.
But weather plays a huge role. In almost every instance when we're working with growers, weather is one of the components of the reasons why they want to adopt some of these practices. The benefits you can get from keeping that ground covered, having that extra residue, holding that soil in place for various weather extremes that we get is all on the front of their mind.
So it's really adapting what they want to do, the species they want to grow, dealing with that residue. How much residue is on the surface if it's cool and wet and their area? All those things all play a part of it. Weather is a lot of times a driver and sort of a key factor in the success.
One of the things that we try to offer with our program is to try to be flexible, with the carbon program in particular, be flexible when sometimes things don't go well with weather just because it does make such a big difference.
Have you guys seen a lot of growers this season dealing with the drought?
Yeah, certainly. Yeah, so a lot of areas, the non irrigated areas, of course, if that cover crop grew too long, it can use up some of that moisture. Plants still use moisture. I'm dabbling into Zach's expertise here a little bit, but there's still plants, they still have to manage them, sort of that added management to the system that has to be taken care of when droughts come along or too much rainfall. Then we want cover crops to use up some of that moisture when it's too wet. But maybe I'll let Zach jump in here on part of that one.
Well, I've been I guess fortunate to work kind of the whole gamut. I try to really at some point geographically just step back and say, "I don't know this area well enough to make really concise recommendations." But I definitely in this year in particular have been working with folks ranging from so dry that cover crops are an issue to so wet that cover crops are really a tool to manage moisture. We can certainly be across that entire spectrum.
I think when we're dealing on that side of trying to manage or we're going to be water limited and think about that cover crop stealing moisture, so folks know those soils and those soils can even change within the farm. You can have those kind of bottom grounds that hold moisture and you can then have ridges that we always say you're three days away from a drought.
Part of it comes down to I think one, selecting the right thing. And we do know that some species use more water than others. Our small grains do seem to be a little bit more water hungry going into the spring. I'm just starting to kind of learn more on that personally.
But we're going to see differences in species. So I think just being keen on species, and of course if we're in those areas where water is really a concern, maybe we shouldn't be planting at such a heavy rate. Let's put less plants in the ground that transpire less moisture.
So we can be thinking about the rate at which we're planting things, and of course when did we choose to terminate those cover crops? This was a year where I saw folks that made that commitment to terminate a cover crop early. I think they did pretty well, but they made that decision because they were stepping back, they were looking at where they were with their moisture, soil moisture, and they were looking at the forecast and seeing where they wanted to be in terms of planting and where that moisture was and making that decision to terminate early.
I've seen that completely go the opposite way where maybe you weren't looking and you had a larger cover crop in your field and you make that decision to terminate and all of a sudden it rains for the next five days and now you don't have this cover crop sucking moisture out of the ground. So I think that can be a challenge. You really do need to take an adaptive management perspective with cover crops and particularly when we terminate it.
The other kind of side of it, if we think about no-till, we think about the advantages of cover crops, we can change how to manage this. We can have ones that winter kill, we can change our termination date, but between those two and no-till and cover crop, the lesson I've consistently learned is we undervalue residue. We get to a half inch of residue, it just does wonders in terms of lowering evaporation at the soil surface. Can cut in about half just when we get to about that half of residue mark.
We undervalue that and we undervalue having that cover and what that means in increasing infiltration as well. There's so many long-term systems I've been to where I can pull back that residue and see just this really wonderful soil structure right there at the surface. If we're not getting water in the surface, that top fraction of an inch, we're not going to get it in. We need to have that surface be good.
I've seen those wonderful systems where it just soaks up water right away. You go and find a spot where it's not exposed, where that soil's been hit by raindrop impact, crusted over, but you just know the water's not getting in there. Everybody uses the analogy of the soil be in a sponge. We've heard that tons and tons of times, but if you're sealing off that surface, you might as well just wrap that sponge up in Saran wrap. If you can't get it past that very, very small fraction at the surface, it's not going to move in.
I think from what I've seen and what I've learned over time is we just don't value a layer of residue enough. I always see folks removing residue and maybe not accounting for what it's truly doing in terms of our water retention. Again, I think we're just walking away from a really positive thing we have there right at the soil surface.
We'll come back to the conversation in a moment, but first I'd like to take a moment to thank our sponsor, Go Seed. Plant Go Seed's FIXation Balansa Clover and save up to $37 per acre in fertilizer input costs. At a trial conducted at the Ewing Demonstration Center in Illinois, FIXation Balansa Clover fixed nearly double the nitrogen per acre over Dixie Crimson Clover.
FIXation Balansa Clover is the cover crop to improve your soil health, increase cash crop yields, and make a positive impact on the planet. Visit www.fixationclover.com to learn why Go Seed is the industry leader in cover crop breeding and research. And now let's get back to the conversation with Tyler Williams Williams and Zach Larson.
I know obviously like you said, there's a lot of factors that go into what makes a certain cover crop successful, but were there any one or two that kind of jumped out at you this year that you saw do really well, specifically in drought?
Our legumes I think tend to do okay when it gets to be dry, at least in sucking up less moisture than our small grains. I don't think we're looking for performance just as much as not having that negative impact. I think the small grains can be most challenging in some of these scenarios. Of course they're the easiest to get into the ground, so it is sort of a lesser of two evils sometimes depending on when you can actually get those cover crops planted.
I'm also interested, you brought up no-till a little bit, have you seen just in your work, not necessarily specifically with ForGround, but just over the years, seeing no-till and seeing cover crops, can we talk a little bit about the relationship between the two and if you've seen more success when they're being done together or if you think that depends where you're at, whether you should be doing one or the other?
I've been very fortunate to work around a lot of folks that have been very early to the game in terms of no-till and very early into the game in terms of cover crop and I would say all the more advanced management strategies with cover crops.
It really was interesting because I think in maybe the mid 2000s I particularly saw, or getting towards 2010, where the cover crops really started to come on as a management tool that was more than just controlling erosion. As that time really started to come on and people, I think, really trying to manage cover crops for building soils, you saw so many long-term no tillers that just came out and said, "All of a sudden I'm seeing this benefit I would've never expected."
If the question is do they go hand in hand, they certainly do. But it was really interesting to see folks that have been no-tilling for 10, 20 years that just kind of hit this plateau, and then all of a sudden cover crops gets worked into that system on a regular basis and folks are coming back saying, "I'm getting so much more in terms of my soil water behavior. I'm getting so much more in terms of building additional organic matter, solving a problem. Kind of give me more value than I expected." I think they go really well hand in hand.
In terms of someone starting out, I think the one thing I would think about or suggest to folks is just to remember that this is a long game that you're playing. In all the folks that I've seen in popular press or being profiled in an article, where they are now is not where they were 10 years or 15 years ago. A lot of folks I've seen over that 10, 15 year period make a lot of change.
Whether they're planting green now or doing interseeding now or relaying their property, or something really interesting, chances are they weren't doing that in the past, and chances are they weren't doing the same thing. Everybody has had that journey of taking one step at a time, figuring one thing out to where I think they get some consistency out of it and then trying to make that next step at the next level.
I think you can approach this no-till and cover crops in the same way, particularly for someone that's really starting from square one. Start with the one thing you can implement and be successful at. Add something to your system, adapt that to what you're doing, and just kind of keep on making those steps. I don't encourage folks to go all in at one time. There's plenty of time to learn and make these things work for your operation.
Yeah, that seems like sound advice. Another thing, Zach, that I wanted to ask you about, I saw on one of your online bios, it kind of mentioned you've spent a lot of time working with the integration of alternate cover crops. What are some of these alternate cover crops, and what makes them alternative, I guess?
The easiest start for many folks and the majority of where people start is with the cereal grains, cereal rye, wheat, oats. That's the most common start. A lot of folks I think hit that point and they may never proceed. They may stay there for a while because that's what works in their system and that's what they're willing to make that step in.
When you want to start adding things into your system, to me, alternate is kind of anything beyond what's conventional for your area. The most logical step for most folks if you're growing corn is to get legumes in your rotation, in your mix of cover crops. Depending on where you are, I think that can be the challenge. And so that's kind of the first question is how do I get these things into my system?
Fortunately, I think those doors keep on opening as folks keep on learning. So interseeding has certainly become an opportunity. As we're seeing, I think people get more savvy on the equipment end and figuring out how to adapt equipment to their operation, I think that's going to be one great way to learn it. It's great to see what folks are doing with aircraft drones, high clearance sprayers, all those sorts of things for getting in interseeding and making it work. I think that's one option for doing it.
The recommendation I have for folks wanting to go interseeding is to have a really sharp pencil when it comes to your seed. I think there's some great legumes and great other species that can work in those systems, but I always want to pull people back more towards the very they get up easy, they get up reliably, they work and maybe not take the risk in terms of seed cost on some of those other ones that may be a little bit more of a risk.
I think that's the first one. I would always pull folks back towards the clovers that that are going to work, the brassicas that you know they're going to work. And as you start creeping up in seed cost and creeping up in those parts.
In a broadcast scenario, we're really, really dependent on moisture, I'm going to hit the brakes personally or at least encourage folks to hit the brakes or know what they're going to get into if you put out a more expensive seed, it's dry, if whatever reason happens that that seed doesn't come up. So really I think in those cases you shoot for ones that you know are going to work. Crimson Clover works really well. Radish works really well. Annual ryegrass works really well.
The other thing that I think could be a great opportunity just more broadly in the agronomic trend is to move soybean planting up to get soybeans planted sooner. I love this from a cover crop side. If we combine that with getting soybeans in the ground a bit earlier, getting maybe a maturity that's a little bit earlier to just open that window to drill in whatever you want. And then you can certainly almost shoot for the moon if you're knocking those seeds in the ground.
I mean, I like having things like hairy vetch in there just because of the low seed end that it gives you in the spring, probably one of the lowest carbon nitrogen ratios you're going to have in being a prolific producer of nitrogen. Folks are asking me, "What's the most guaranteed in front of corn?" A lot of hairy vetch is probably a good answer just because of its carbon and nitrogen ratio by the time you terminate it.
But that's only going to come if we are managing that the previous fall. If you see that you're willing to get something in the ground sooner and maybe adjust the maturities that you're using to get more certainty of putting something in the ground, that clearly can have some advantages there.
It's working within the systems that people have and also I think just being willing to figure out where those places are that you can change your system to make those things work, very important things.
One thing that Zach even kind of alluded to it, and one thing I've seen is the creativity of a lot of growers, it sort of progresses a little bit longer they do it. They try to address the next challenge or the issue, and they get good and then they add something next and add something next. And so I'm always amazed at the homework and the creativity that a lot of the growers will do to get things to work in their system. They're determined to make it work, and so they find ways through alternative crops or alternative planting methods, timing, all of those things just to make it work.
Yeah, I totally agree. I think, I mean, as an ag journalist, one of the coolest things for me is seeing a lot of the really innovative ideas that some farmers have, not just with what you're talking about, but I mean I've seen all kinds of really innovative equipment ideas of farmers just coming up with ways to kind of rig up machines the way that's going to work right for their system.
And so that's kind of a good segue to the next question speaking of equipment. I'm curious some of the specifics around, I know back to the ForGround program, some of the specifics around the help that you guys offer with seed and equipment costs. If I'm a farmer, what would I need to know about that part of the program?
That's a piece of the program we try to, again, bring folks in, like I mentioned, that can help them reduce those cost barriers. Great Plains Ag is one example where they provide discounts on box drills. If you're going into cover crops, you might need a box drill to seed that. And so they've kind of come forward and said, "Hey, we have seeding drills that you can seed your cover crops." They also have agronomists that work in this space and kind of can help on that angle as well.
And so we really just want to bring folks like that to the table. Growers can come in, they can get that benefit just for being a ForGround member, work with Great Plains dealer, whatever it might be. Same thing with ETS SoilWarrior through a strip-till machine. You can come in, you can get a discount on a unit if you're going to plan on purchase one if you're going into the strip-till program.
So really that's kind of the angle that we pull those things together. That's always changing. We're always adding new all the time. That's one of the cool things we try to provide growers that sign up is blast out an email or an update saying, "Hey, we have a new group collaborating with us. Here's the offer. Here's something that can help you do what you want to try on your farm."
And then another thing I want to touch on before we get off the topic of ForGround is the carbon program. I know that obviously carbon is, I feel like one of the subjects that there's been a lot more confusion on for a lot of farmers over the years. And so maybe you could kind of explain how the carbon program fits into the ForGround program.
Yeah. Kind of like I mentioned, one of the big pieces and sort of nuggets of ForGround is the ability to find revenue streams. Carbon Program is our main one at this time. We're hoping to add more and more of those. Bayer Carbon Program has been around for a few years now. We started a pilot in 2020 and then did a program through 2021, 2022, and then now again here in '23. We have options that we provide the growers if they want to adopt crops no-till or strip-till. You can get paid by the acre to do that.
There's all sorts of confusion, and I think a lot of that comes because everyone does it a little different. A lot of people will pay by practice. If you do no-till, you get paid X amount or it's paid on the amount of carbon that you sequester. So the more carbon that you sequester, the more you can get paid. There's a little confusion on that just because that changes how programs are run and how programs are operating.
Also, just the fact that it's a new and emerging market, I mean, you're sort of adding a new commodity to the farm that is hard to see. You can't just see it up in the atmosphere. It's really hard to see in the soil, and it's hard to measure across the field. So it's complex and I think that it's really emerging in the amount of technology and the knowledge that people are gaining in this industry to again, do it and do it right and do it well and do it consistent. I think all those things adding together can help clear up some of that complexity.
I think Zach attest to this, one of the things that what we spend a lot of time doing is explaining to growers how it works, even the whys behind it a little bit. There's a lot of questions because it does get a lot of headlines, gets, again, sometimes not the best headlines just because I think there's a lot of unknown to it. Once you understand it and talk through it, it makes a lot more sense, but it's still a challenging and an emerging market that I think will continue to be shaped as we get better at it.
If I'm a farmer and I've been listening in and so far this sounds like it's a program that I may be interested, what's the first step or what's the first thing I need to know to get involved with it?
As far as our program, the best thing to do is go to bayerforground.com. They can check out the website. You can sign up for an account and get on the platform where you can get those discounts. You can get access to the agronomy team. You can check out and check your eligibility if you want to sign up for a carbon program or another revenue stream program.
We utilize Climate FieldView, which is sort of the digital ag software within Bayer, so you have to have a FieldView account. You can get one of those for free and create that, and then you can use that information, those credentials just to log to ForGround. Really that's kind of the connection to your farm to ForGround and the ability to know what programs your fields are eligible for.
But again, it's pretty easy to check it out, bayerforground.com, you can look at the website. Scroll around, you can read all the good stuff that Zach writes, and you can skip the stuff that I write on there. But then that's where you can go ahead and sign up, and then you can check out the sort of behind the wall of ForGround and get a little bit more in depth.
Fantastic. Guys, is there anything we haven't talked about yet that you kind of want to touch on here?
I think we covered most of it.
I always like to end with sort of a more broad question, hopefully more fun question based on what you guys are both working on. I'm curious, what's the most rewarding part of your job being an agronomist?
It's definitely the ability to do what we like to do every day when we're chatting with growers, helping them solve the problems on their farm, and the ability to have some solutions to help them. Through our program we can bring them the knowledge, but we can also bring them some of those opportunities that can help address some of those either economic or equipment barriers, whatever that barrier might be. We can bring some tools to them to help them to make the change that they want to do. And so that's by far the most rewarding when you can align all of those things and get something done beneficial on the farm.
For me, I think it's kind of twofold. First off, every time I'm out doing something, every time I'm working with someone or doing work on my own and kind of seeing what the research is, [inaudible] research on my own, you'll learn something. I don't think there's a single time I'm out there where there's something. So many people that I've observed, been on their farms kind of been as mentors, whether they knew it or not, I've picked up along the way. It's been just absolutely phenomenal.
The second part is trying to get folks to maybe make that next step with whatever they're doing. When you do have someone that is coming with a problem and you can see how cover crops fit into a solution to that problem, just to watch that progression going from particularly maybe soils that weren't that great to begin with to really getting much more function, much more value out of your ground.
The big picture of trying to make everything work in terms of being productive, but also having these kind of is also these positive benefits for both the farmer, even the environmental benefits as well is a lot of fun at the end of the day to fit all those puzzle pieces together.
Awesome. Yeah. Good answers guys, and just thanks again for taking the time, especially Zach and I are on vacation, so really appreciate you guys taking the time to chat with me today. I'm sure our listeners are going to enjoy this conversation, so thanks.
Yep. Thank you.
Big thank you to Tyler Williams and Zach Larson for today's discussion. The full transcript of the episode will be available at covercropstrategies.com/podcasts. Many thanks to our sponsor, Go Seed, for helping to make this cover crop podcast series possible. From all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.