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“I want to make it as simple as possible for new producers to get into the practice of cover crops.”

— Dean Sponheim, Fourth-Generation Farmer, Osage, Iowa

In this episode of the Cover Crop Strategies Podcast, brought to you by Go Seed, listen to a popular presentation from a previous National Cover Crop Summit featuring Dean Sponheim.

Sponheim, a fourth-generation farmer from Osage, Iowa, who has been aerial seeding cover crops since 2012, discusses how to handle common aerial seeding challenges, recommended rate of establishment for aerial seeding, which species of cover crops do best when aerial seeded and much more.

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Full Transcript

Mackane Vogel:

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, we listen to a popular presentation from a previous national Cover Crop summit featuring Dean Sponheim. Sponheim, a fourth generation farmer from Osage, Iowa who has been aerial seeding cover crops since 2012, discusses how to handle common aerial seeding challenges, recommended rate of establishment for aerial seeding, which species of cover crops do best when aerial seeded, and much more.

Dean Sponheim:

I am the fourth generation farmer. I have 125-year-old farm in north central or northeast Iowa. My wife and I and my son, Josh, are presently running the business and the family farm. I grew up like lot of other people at my age where there was a lot of tillage being done. There was no such thing as cover crops being done, but there was a lot of the three-crop or four-crop rotation where we had small grains, legumes. We also had a lot of livestock at that time, so we had some experiences with some of these cover crops, but not in the context as what we're talking about nowadays.

When we started this whole journey, it actually started a little bit on the conservation side. I should explain. It started with tillage processes that we had changed over the years. Like I said before, when I started farming, we were full with tillage, still moldboard plowing. And late '90s, we started around 1999 with strip tilling, and things just grew from there. And I want to tell you that because that's how we got started in the cover crop business and aerial application of cover crops was when we started early 2000, there was a small group of farmers, probably five of us neighbors, that started strip tilling and no-tilling beans in the corn stalks and things like that.

And we got into a competition of comradery sort of thing to see who could master these practices quicker and sooner and better. And it came in 2012, I remember pretty well that this group of farmers or our neighbors who started to talk, we got invited to an NRCS field day. And at the field day, they were talking about flying cover crops into our standing crops. Wow, that one blew my mind because I had spent most of my career, all of my career, even before I started farming, we were always taught to keep our crops clean of weeds or foreign material while they were still growing. And here they were going to tell us we're going to fly this cover crop into our standing crops, and I thought that was just absolutely idiotic.

And at first, I didn't think much of it. I wasn't going to go. And then I got to hearing from these guys from our group, our neighborhood saying, "Well, maybe that would really work." And I wasn't going to be left behind. So I attended that meeting, and that was our first exposure to aerial application of cover crops because we actually had an aerial applicator company come in. And one of the pilots actually presented that day and talked about how they, in the past, had been applying fertilizer and also in down south in the southern states and rice and cotton. They were actually even seeding grass along interstate highways that were being built or remodeled. And it really intrigued us a little bit, so we started.

And in 2012, then we had probably, I don't know, 500 acres between the five or six neighbors, and we started that way and real small. And as we got going longer and longer in the next couple years, we started picking up some acres. And eventually the guys, the group, were sick of getting their own seed and lining that up and lining up the airplane, so then they came to me after we seeded in the fall or late summer. We usually seed in late August or early September with an airplane. And they came up to me after we got done seeding and they said, "Dean, you are the local Pioneer sales rep," because most of them are my Pioneer customers. "Why don't you take care of getting the seed lined up?"

Because at that time, we were all getting our own individual seed, taking it to the airport. When we first started, it was a lot of 50 pound bags on pallets, and we would break those bags at the airport, dump them into their tender, then they would put it into their planes. The year before, we started getting the seed lined up, we were buying a semi or two, and then we would split that cost after we were done on how accurate the plane was actually applying it. It was an iffy thing. If you wanted 60 pounds of rye, we may had to buy 62 or 65 just depending on how accurate the planes were.

But anyway, they came to me and they said, "Why don't you do that? Why don't you start lining that up?" And that's when the Sponheim Sales and Services started, and we established that in the winter of 2014. We developed it on the premise that we wanted to make it as simple and easier for the new producers to get into this practice of cover crops. So we started a system which we call a one-stop shop, and that's where the cooperator will come into our office and say, "I want my back 80 applied aerially at 50 pounds of cereal rye," and that's all they have to do. Well, they have to give us their maps, and then we take it from there.

We actually, in our business, have growers that grow rye and oats for us and then we condition it and then resell it or we apply it. And we take care of all the application, whether it be the air, we're talking about airplanes today, but we also have ground rigs, no-till drills that apply cover crops for us as well. And then we take care of all of the paperwork. If they're in a government cost share program, we supply them with all the as planted masks because everything is mapped, and then also all the tags that they need to be able to collect their cost-share money. So we started that business and maybe some of you're going to be bored with this, but I think this will give you a little bit of an idea that, hey, maybe I have a little bit of credibility about how applying this cover crop aerial really is.

In 2012, I'm going to talk a lot about that, but that's where we approximately started. And the Osage area is the same area as... My address is actually North Springs. We are located just about 15 miles northeast of Mason City, Iowa, probably about 20 miles from Minnesota border. In 2012, we started with approximately 500 acres in the Osage area between the five or six neighbors that we had. In 2013, we grew a little bit, not a whole lot. Went to about 750. And then in 2014, it did start get to be a little larger because of the original producers that started it. We were having good luck and they started to do more of their acres. And then as the plane started flying, people started to recognize what are we doing, and that prompted more new producers to jump on the bandwagon and start applying.

Then in the fall or late winter or probably the middle of winter of '14 and '15, we started Sponheim Sales and Services like I said before. And then how we got into seed production, I thought at that time we were working with a local retailer in Minnesota supplying us with most of the cover crop seed. Now, "Well, we'll just keep doing that," but then I had a cattle feeder. One of my neighbors, one of my Pioneer customers, had chopped silage in the fall of '14 and had planted a rye behind it, cereal rye. He wanted to leave the ride till summer for combining so he would've a place to haul manure in the summer. He said, "I hear you've started a business. Can you take this rye from me and then resell it?" And I said, "Sure, we'll try it just a little bit," and that's where we started in the process of growing and processing cover crop seed.

In 2015, we kept increasing a little bit on our local growers. Our aerial application went to about 3,800 acres. In 2016, things continued to grow. Our seed cleaning systems were pretty crude at the first. We really didn't know how long this... We thought this might be a fad. We didn't know if this was going to be sustainable. We weren't too sure about it at all, and I should back up a little bit. The owners of this or the partners in this business are myself and my son Josh, and then I have a Pioneer sales rep by the name of Rachel Amundson and she's also part of the business. And we were still debating what this was all going to turn out to be. And in 2016, we saw some growth again and we kept growing. Of course, it's always fun at first when you start doubling every year, and that's basically what we were doing in the first few years.

As you can see, in 2016, our producers increased. The acres of seed increased. The acres of aerial application really started to increase drastically. We went up to 5,500 acres in 2016. We did start offering no-till drilling. I'm not going to talk a lot about that, but that is one of our services. And we did do a few acres, 3,100 acres of custom drilling. In 2017, our acres of production continued to rise. Our number of producers weren't rising at that time, I guess they are because we started adding some oat producers as well as rye producers because there's a call for oats as well, even in aerial application. Our aerial-applicated acres went up to around 12,000 acres that year, and our custom drilling went up a hair to 4,500.

In 2018, things really started to pop and our demand started to get really, really large. And so our aerial growers grew by quite a bit. We did start doing some interceding. We didn't do any aerial application of that. It was a fad at first. We really haven't found the right species to make that work. The only time that we really make that work is if we go to 60-inch corn in this area. Our aerial-applicated acres went up again to a pretty good jump to over 17,000 acres, and then our custom drilling went down a little bit because some of the customers or producers that we started with a drill started buying their own drills.

In 2019, we continued to increase, but I should back up just a bit. We had gone from the rotary screens with a fan on it to we went to a smaller cleaner in an old cattle shed that we weren't using. Still not really spending a lot of investment in the cleaning system, but then in 2019, we all sat down and we made a conscious decision to commit to the business and continue to grow and we were going to be around for a while. So in 2019, we started building our upgraded cleaning facility, and at that time we broke to 20,000 acres that we were applying with the airplane in each year and we were a little over 4,300 acres in drilling. And in the final two years, 2020, we continue to grow a little bit more all the time, and the custom drilling probably is going to go back down a little bit because as more customers see what's going on, there's going to be more of a call for individual application of their own with drills of their own.

The airplanes still stays steady and still climbs, and I think that'll continue to climb for us as we continue to get new customers or new producers online. And in 2021, we were over 23,000 acres of cover crops applied by the plane. And like I said, I don't think that's going to change. It may not grow as much as we were thinking in the past because of more drills on the ground in the area, but aerial still has a great place. We're going to talk about some of the things that we saw or what we've seen over 100,000 acres of aerial-applicated cover crops that we've done since we've started. We're going to show some of the things that we think are advantages and some of the challenges that we also have faced while doing it.

We're going to touch a little bit real quickly on the advantages. The first one would be the early establishment of the cover crops, and that could be used for whether we're talking about grazing or forage production, and also getting some growth out of our winter kill species that we are applying. If we wait till after the crop is harvested with a drill we do not get... Especially in this area, you got to keep in mind where we are, where I'm at, many of you're probably watching from different areas of the country that have probably a longer growing season after your harvest, which I am envious of you, but I think we are on the extreme up here. We call ourselves living on the tundra, and if we can make it work, anybody can make it work, I would say. It's just maybe a little bit different way.

It's also the fastest seating method. It also meets government requirements. And when we talk about government requirements, we're really looking at probably the timing, the dates that are set out or set forth for us from the government, how soon we have to have these cover crops applied, and that's where the aerial application is almost a necessity in some of these or most of what we're doing in this area. We can also use multiple species very easily and we'll talk a little bit about that. And one of the reasons is we can use different species that we would not be able to use with the drill if we're waiting post-harvest. And also, aerial application isn't always reliant on field conditions.

Now there are a couple exceptions and we'll talk about that later in the presentation, but for the most part, it doesn't make any difference if the soil is watered dry or you can't get in there with a spreader or whatever. And it's also less expensive, and that's just the initial costs. We would always suggest to put a little higher rate on when we aerial apply, which would offset the higher cost of what a drill would cost. It's a mute point sometimes, but it is less expensive with initial costs. And then also to avoid those post-harvest seeding delays. When we get into a rainy fall and it pushes back our corn and soybean harvest or even snow, sometimes we're finishing up harvest and the ground is already froze up. So if you're relying strictly on your drill, you may not get that cover crop applied in that fall where you really want it to be applied.

And the other thing is labor. If you're going to use a drill in the fall and you're waiting post-harvest, in order to do that, you almost have to have another person designated just to put cover crops in, and a lot of operations do not have that extra man. And so that really comes into play on why you use aerial application. The first advantage was that early establishment. If you're going to graze something, we need to get that cover crop out there as soon as we possibly can and make it survive. And we'll talk a little bit about how we can make it survive and how early we can go, but this is a cornfield that was just harvested not too long ago and it's already feed available for the cows, or in this case, looks like calves to me.

But that's really a unique and really a great way to do it, is to get that early establishment and have that feed source, especially the pastures at this time are usually all fed up and cattle producers are usually feeding hay to their cows. In this situation, you can get them out of stocks as soon as possible and get things established and have some feed. Cut that feed cost down. It's a big thing on the livestock side. It's also great to get it for soil erosion, especially soybean fields. As you look on the left-hand picture, as we cut those beans off, there isn't a lot of material there to hold soil, whether it be wind erosion or water erosion. If we have a nice green carpet out there, as we combine those beans, we've got that ground protected right from the start, not having to wait for the drill to go through it and then wait for the establishment, get it to germinate.

And a lot of times we have a little more moisture sometimes when we are applying it aerial earlier in the fall than we do later in the fall, so we can take advantage of some of those earlier rains. We talked about the speed. I always told people when they asked me about how fast we could fly on, and I was used to the smaller planes, the 602s and I think there's a 402, but now they got the 802s and those things can really move and they hold a lot. They hold about 4,800 pounds. They can do roughly 90 acres at a time in a fill, and then you can usually apply that in about 15 minutes round trip. We were timing, a lot of times if we can keep the fields within 15 miles of our airports, that time of application and ferrying gets to be very small and very short.

So as you can see on this screen, we're comparing a plane that's going 140 miles an hour spreading 70 feet at a time compared to a 40-foot air drill, which is a pretty good-sized drill for us, and we've got three of them running and that's at eight miles an hour. Now these are the best case scenarios. Keep that in mind. It's 2,000 acres a day with a plane and 400 acres a day with the drill. And some of you may say, "Well, I can do more than that with a drill," or less, or whatever. I always said for the rule of thumb with planes, we were getting 1,000 to 1,500 a day, but we did have one particular day this last fall, of course it's getting started early in the morning with no complications, it could run until dark at night, we did 4,200 acres in one day with two planes. That doesn't happen all the time. A lot of times it depends on the size of fields and of course location and how much turning they're doing.

The other thing we talked about for an advantage was the government requirements, and that's basically the time in which we have to get these species planted. And if this is Iowa, we have three zones. We actually fly in six different counties, but all those counties are in the two northern tiers of the counties. We're all in zone one. For our non-winter-hardy cover crops, we need to have them applied by the 9th of September. This causes problems with drilling because a lot of times if we have those species that we want to put on, we are not combining beans until the end of September and maybe sometimes October. We're not taking corn off until same time, the end of September. Maybe if it's an extreme year we can get it to the middle of September, but we're way past the time in which we can apply with a drill. That's where the airplane really comes into play is when that happens.

The other thing we've also seen is our winter kill species need to be on by October 21st. And I think it's been two years ago now, it was going to be a very late harvest. We got things planted late. We had a cooler summer, the crops didn't mature as quickly, and we had guys that were going to drill come to us and say, "Hey, I know you guys flew on earlier. Can we fly some on now just to make sure we reach the deadline?" And we did. We did switch some acres that was going to go to drilling and we went to aerial application. And there's an option that you can do that. That's one reason why the aerial application works very well. Now we do have other options, but not in this particular area. You could use a high-boy, sometimes a high-boy might not work.

It's also a great way to get those winter kill or broadleaf cover crops or even the oats. If you want to put it on earlier and get some growth on it, the only way we can do it is with airplane. Now we're not going to get the big... You've seen pictures of these huge tillage riders that have tubulars that are two foot long. We're not going to get to that with our type of cover crops. The only way we see that is if they are planted much earlier in the growing season in June or July, and we're not going to be there with those. But even getting this size of radish still helps our soil. It still helps our soil biology, so whatever growth we can get, it will be an advantage and an improvement in our soil health.

When I talked about the high-boy, I'll give you cut. This isn't when we're trying to put on cover crops, but this can happen when we are trying to apply those cover crops on a timely matter. We've woke up to rains like this. This was actually just a sheep pasture. The water right here, and this is probably about 12 feet deep, and normally there's only water about three feet wide and about a foot deep going through this waterway. And when you get into those situations and you're trying to get that cover crop applied on a timely matter, this can be very, very difficult. We have a person that we know just about 100 miles west of us into Minnesota that he does a lot of custom with a high-boy Hagie applying cover crops and I know he's been pulled out of the field more than once, so that's not always an advantage to doing that that way. But there's also a lot of times where this can be too much too for us flying, and we'll touch on that on some of the challenges.

And of course it's less expensive in this area, and this could be different. I know there's different rates for planes. Some aerial applicators will charge at a certain pounds for distance, all that stuff. We've got a great relationship with our applicator and we have a special rate and we keep it down to, like I said, less than 15 miles of taxiing and we take care of them very well on the front end on helping them fill and all that stuff, and I'll talk about that at the end. But we're charging $15 an acre flat rate and our no-till drillers are charging $18.

This is an extreme cases where we end up with snow before we quit harvest and before we start applying cover crops, but this can happen. And when this happens, it just shuts our window down for applying those cover crops for fall application and get anything out of them before the winter freeze. That's a big advantage of aerial application, and I can't say that enough. I'm not saying, and we're going to talk about the challenges, it's not always the most consistent stands and perfect things when we do the aerial application.

Mackane Vogel:

We'll come back to the show 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 by 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 to learn why Go Seed is the industry leader in cover crop breeding and research. And now, let's get back to the episode with Dean Sponheim.

Dean Sponheim:

There's a huge amount of advantage for aerial application. We're going to go back and basically we try to think of some of the things that we had challenges, and most of them fall into this inconsistent stand category. And we'll talk about the problem with the inconsistent stand and some of the reasons why. One is the crop stage or the canopy, sometimes it's the applicator error, other times it's the weather and Mother Nature. The other thing is the crop is we're going to fly into, and then it comes back to applicator error, maybe with the borders and field edge skips and over spreads, and sometimes the seed sizes. And the other thing would be the applicator schedule.

In our particular area, we really don't get any planes available for our cover crop application, and this has been up to now and it might change in the future. They will have planes flying fungicide and insecticide on corn, I guess mainly corn that late, and they won't switch the planes over until they're done with that. And that usually runs from maybe the 1st of August to the middle to late August, and that's about when we want to start. We're looking at going and started applying cover crops the last week of August trying to hit that September 9th frame, as I showed you before in our area that we have to have those specific species on by. So it's very tight. If that application of fungicide and insecticide goes later, we sometimes have less availability of the planes.

But I think as cover crop continues to grow, I think the applicators know that that's part of their business and it's going to be a large part of their business. And we're starting to see more planes available and sooner. We're even starting to see some planes available in the summertime for applying nitrogen for side dressing. And so I think what we're going to see is as this demand continues to increase, the supply of aircraft and equipment will also increase, so we maybe have a better time or more timely applications.

So we'll start with a consistent stands, and a lot of you out there, probably why you're watching is because you're getting the inconsistent stands. And some of the things that I'm going to talk about is some of the reasons why we see them, at least that's what we've seen in the past. The picture on the left happens to be a spring picture of cereal rye that was aerial applied the fall before in the standing soybeans. And as you can see in that picture, it is not a consistent stand and I apologize, I took it from a tractor. We were strip tilling into that field. And you can see spots and gaps where the rye isn't very thick or not at all.

Now that's still good enough to give us some soil health benefits, but it's not consistent enough to maybe pattern a fertilizer application to consistently or to try to eliminate weeds or have weed suppression because in those areas where there are very little rye, there's not a lot of weed suppression. But it still does. We have a saying that a little bit of cover is better than none at all, so it's still a step in the right direction. The center one is showing, this is one of our farms, one of our fields. We do strip crop, so that means that we plant eight rows of corn and eight rows of beans, alternate them all the way across the field, and here we're planting actually the soybeans. This one actually got stripped, the way it looks.

And if you look at the cover stand in the eight rows that we're planting right now in the beans, that stand is very, very poor. If you look at the strips that were soybeans and we planted corn into them, look at how thick and lush that is. And that's basically due to the canopy of the crop stage. Those beans were farther along to more of the ideal time to be applying cover crops and have them survive. But on the corn side, the corn was not far enough along and mature enough. And we see this a lot. If the corn is not to the black layer stage, and we'll touch on that again, the corn stays green too long and there's no light interception at all down in there for the cereal rye. We can have cereal rye get started just like it did on the bean side, which we know it did because the conditions weren't that much different, but they did not survive because they did not have the sun to start the photosynthesis. So that's a big issue and I'm hoping to touch on that again later in the presentation.

The picture on the right-hand side is actual field. If you notice, there's very little rye or cover crop down the center of the row, and what happened is we had applied that one day, during the night we had a five-inch rain in a very short period of time. I don't know, two, three hours, whatever it was. And what we think had happened, I wasn't out there, it was the middle of the night, but if you would happen to see where all that rye has been pushed to the cornrows, I think what happened is the water actually got high enough in that soil. It didn't percolate fast enough. It stood the water and it floated the seed to the edges where it was caught in the corn row. And we see that sometimes. When we're laying this seed on top and we get a large rain, it will move. It is the same way with spreading on top of standing water, and we'll get to that.

This is where the weather... And I'm going to jump down a little bit to that rain and standing water. We've had times... Well, the slides before when I talked about that one field had five inches of rain. We were not done spreading cover crops at that time, but we woke up, we were on the way to the airport, and we had water running out of some of these fields. And they were so anxious to get going because it was beautiful. It was calm and it was no fog and they wanted to get started, and I said, "No, we can't do it because we got running water." We fly on these fields with that running water, we're going to wash a lot of this seed away and we just won't have the benefit from it.

So that's one of the disadvantages when we talk about weather on flying, but the water part is the only one, is if we have standing water or running water, we do not seed. We try to keep them out even though it is better conditions otherwise. The other big thing would be the wind speed, and as you can see, the heavier seed we can go longer. The maximum would be 15 miles an hour. Once we start getting to that sustained wind, it's pretty nasty for the pilots but also for trying to get the seed in the right place. I remember one time it was 15 miles an hour and actually was out watching the plane and the pilot was flying over the road so the seed would hit the field. I don't know if all of you would know what situation we have up in northern Iowa, but most roads are about 40 feet wide and then there's usually a 10 to 15 foot wide ditch. So these planes are flying 15 to 20 feet off target to try to hit the field, and that's not the best way to get a consistent stand.

When you get to the lighter material or lighter cover crops like annual ryegrass and oats, a lot of times the pilots will fly closer. When they're flying with cereal rye they're about 70 feet above the ground, so a lot of times the highline wires, the only thing that really bothers them are evergreen trees that are up in that 90 to 100 feet high. But when you get into the oats and the annual ryegrass, which is very light, a lot of times we're not... We've got one customer that flies annual ryegrass on every fall and we can't go over five mile an hour wind, otherwise we're in trouble because you just cannot get that.

The other thing is if there's gusty winds and it's not consistent, that's when you really get into problems with inconsistent stands. And then fog, of course. Some mornings we wake up with a lot of ground fog and we can't start applying until later in the morning, and severe storms. They do a pretty good job at keeping tabs on radar and what's going on. I know we have flown right up until sometimes the last plane that comes in. It's raining hard and it's lightning and he said, "Man, I shouldn't have been out there that last load." It does happen, but they try to keep ahead of that as well.

This is interesting. This isn't a big deal, but it's curious and it's fun to look at. We do have some of the product and that's one of the reasons why some people don't like the airplane is they say, "Well, the canopy is going to catch too much of the seed." Yes, I don't think it's too much. It's very little. I've never gone and taken numbers to see what the percentage is, but it does happen. It really does, and it's interesting to watch it grow actually on a corn plant.

And the last thing I think on this inconsistent stand is the borders. This is actually one of our strip crop fields and the picture on the right is right along the road. There is power lines there. I don't know why he did hit it. We have discussions with our pilots every year. We want him to go all the way to the fence or all the way to the ditch, but not over seed into the neighbors. You know how that is. We're only picky. We want the best job that we can get, but it's hard to do when you're flying 140 miles an hour and trying to get things in the right place, especially turning on and off on the headlands when they are turning it on and off.

We have come to a conclusion that we are doing two passes on every headland field where they're turning the spreaders on and off, but as you can see, the second bean strip from the road on the left here has a perfect stand, and that's what about having a lawn right behind when you combine. This is probably about a week after we harvested the soybeans and this is what it would normally look like on the right-hand side, but look at how nice and lush and green that is on the left. That's what we want.

When I talk about seed size, there's a couple things that go on, and this can happen with the drill as well. I'll talk about the separating. When you're trying to blend or make a mix and you're going from like a oat, which is a 15,000 seeds per pound, it's large, lighter, a long kernel, and you mix something like camelina, which you can barely see because we get up to half a million seeds per pound. It's very, very small. When we get that in a bag, a lot of times it's leaking out of the stitching. Because of stitching, you can't get close enough to keep that product inside. But when you have that, sometimes there's some settling in the plane and also when you're moving it with trucks or with their tenders. But the biggest thing is spreading it.

With a grain drill, You don't have to worry about that because you're still spreading it into certain areas. You're still putting it in those rows or whatever, but with airplanes it does have a different spread pattern and sometimes you will start seeing the streaking. Not a lot, but you will see some, especially with an oat. If you're putting an oat in with that and you're going with one of these other, like a rapeseed or a radish or a turnip even, the seed size is heavier so it flies farther or the oats will not fan out quite as far. When you start using these particular brassicas or broadleafs or whatever, or even sometimes legumes, the rye your best choice because the rise is a little bit heavier. It's got a little bit different shape, but it still seems to apply and spread out very similar to these. But that's what we're talking about with inconsistent sands and seed sizes.

We're going to jump now to seeding rates, and the first thing that you have to know is what's your goal with the cover crops? Are you going to use it just for a cover crop? Are you going to use it for grazing? You're going to use it for forage? Are you going to use it for weed suppression? And what rate of weed suppression? Do you just want to eliminate one pass or you want to eliminate all application of herbicides altogether?

I spoke at a meeting in Minnesota and they were talking about they were applying cereal rye and they had to have it, and this was not recommendation, but that was what they had to do, was 96 pounds of cereal rye applied by the plane PLS, which would be pure live seed. And in that case they were putting on between 105 to 110 pounds of cereal rye, depending on what the germ is, and what the purity was. In Iowa, as long as it meets 85% germ, these are the recommended rates. Now I think maybe in Iowa we want a little too far on making it so easy, which I love, but I think the rates may be a little bit low in certain instances. And if you look on the left-hand side, our recommendations for cover crops for the winter hardy grasses, which would be the triticale weed or rye, then we're looking at 55 to 60 pounds of the plane.

Now sometimes we still say 45 pounds is okay with a drill depending on what you want out of it. And on the oats, we stay with a recommendation. They did bring that down as well. I think when we first started doing, we were used to be PLS as well when we first started applying in the 2012s through, I don't even remember when this switched, '16 or '17, but that 60 pounds of oats seemed to be pretty good. That's a lot of oats. That's two bushels. 64 pounds would be two bushels.

And then when we figure our mixes, I want to point that out a little bit, is let's say we want a pound of rapeseed. A pound of full rape would be three pounds, or in an airplane it would be four pounds. If we put a pound of rape on, we can reduce our cereal rye or oats by a fourth, by 25%. And as long as we stay with a total of 100% between the two products, then we're good. So it has made it very, very easy. When you start working and maybe some of you're from Minnesota or our other states are using PLS, just make sure you talk to your local supplier and make sure you're applying the right amount of seed to reach that PLS that's required.

On the weed control side, we do have a partial. We have many customers who are putting on like 70 pounds of cereal rye with the plane and then what they do is they plant into it green and then they don't germinate for a couple, three weeks after it comes up, and they just apply a post and that's all they do. So they go from two passes with a pre and a post, they go just to a post. Now our goal in our farming operation is we're going to go strictly no herbicides, so we're going to use crimper roller, so we're going to be putting 140 to 150 to 200 pounds of cereal rye on per acre to help control our weeds. So it all depends on what you want to accomplish. Know your goal, know what you want to accomplish in the end, and then go with the different rates and the different products.

These are some of our mixes that we've been using. The first one, the 50 pounds of cereal rye and the pound of rapeseed, is probably our standard for a government two-species mix. We've seen rape actually over winter a little bit and we still continue to be able to control it with glyphosate, even though in the literature it says we should probably use something else like a growth inhibitor or a regulator like a 240 or something on it, we haven't seen that problem. We also do 50 to 60 pounds of rye with a couple pounds of radish. There was always fads where everybody thinks they should have radishes, but I think that's slowed down and we've gone back to more of the rapeseed.

Our newest one that getting a lot of traction is winter camelina because that's one that will overwinter and will give us those advantages of the broadleaf in there as well as just the cereal rye in the spring. It's really new to us. We applied it once in 2020, and I think we have probably five customers or five producers that we put camelina in this fall just to see what we can get out of it and see what kind of growth. I know my son applied it late with a drill and the rye just came up and just started turning green and the camelina, it was right behind it. So it looks like it's going to be able to establish in colder soils and get going just as fast as cereal rye.

Now I have to apologize, I don't know why we got this one end where it says non-winter-hardy mixes and we have cereal rye and oats, but this is one that we really have found, and even if you're not going to graze, this has become a very popular mix for us because we get much more growth in the fall from the oats and then we have this great growth of the rye in the spring. So it's accomplishing a lot more in the fall than we normally would get just from the rye. And of course whenever we add one more species, the oats really has a great host of organisms that it attracts in the soil, even more so than the rye. But the rye has low [inaudible] effect of small seeded grass or broadleaves to control our weeds in the spring. So they really compliment each other in what we're trying to accomplish.

You have people that will do, especially the first timers of cover crops, and we'll talk about that I think in the next slide or two, but oats, it's not overwintering, so the farmers don't have to worry about terminating in the spring, especially ahead of corn, and the radish is the same way. That's really popular for our first time users. And in our grazing mixes, this depends on what you want out of it. We've got some really crazy things that we do. The cereal rye and oats is awesome, just up the rates. If you want to add something in like the kale and turnips, cows just love that. It gets to be a lot of leafy material, but I would really caution you, do not fly that into standing beans.

We've got good luck with flying oats into standing beans and we get into a year where the beans have matured and it's too wet the harvest and then that rye continues to grow and grow. It's going to go to try to make seed, so it gets to be massive. 12, 18 inches tall and you're out there with beans. We have had a couple instances where it starts plugging sieves with all that moisture, but if you were to add kale and turnips into that mix to that type of situation, I would not want to have the phone call. But that works good in the corn if you put it on and get a rain and make sure the corn is far enough along.

Okay, to get started, we have this easy what we call five-step process. For those that don't want to spend a lot of money on equipment, don't want to change too many things, especially to get the seeding equipment for cover crops, it's real simple to start and maybe you might be a little scared of rye ahead of corn. In our first year, so let's say in 2022 here now, you have a soybean field and you're going to go to corn in '23. This fall, apply the 55 pounds... Excuse me, I'm backwards. In the the corn section, excuse me, okay? I don't know what I was thinking about.

But into the standing corn with 55 pounds on with the airplane in that standing corn and then next spring, 2023, you no-till beans into that rye. Now I'm not saying you have to plant green. If you're first time, go ahead and terminate as soon as you can in the spring so you don't have to worry about so much competition or whatever you might think is the problem with cereal rye, which I don't have any problem because everything we plant on our farms or no-till into green rye, corn and beans.

So then the third step would be after those beans are growing and in the fall of that bean crop, then aerial seed about 60 pounds of oats in that bean field at the time of leaf drop just before that. And the following spring, if you're a little concerned about that, you won't have the oats there. You can actually even work the ground, which I don't recommend. I would recommend no tilling the corn in the next spring and then start the process over and then repeat it until you're so comfortable that you're also planning the rye in the beans going ahead of corn and then you can just progress from there. But that's our five-step easy plan getting started with cover crops and working towards no-till.

So we're getting close to ending this, so we're going to end on some keys to success. And the first one is always you must have a goal or a plan in mind and how you want to do this. What do do you want out of this? What's your goal of the cover crop? And don't get me wrong, when I first started, my goal for the cover crop was to sequester nutrients, especially nitrogen. That's the only reason, because I'm on ground that's got less than 2% slope. I don't need it for erosion purposes, but there are many of you out there that the erosion piece is big. It might be the first reason why you want to go to cover crops, and it can change. From the time when I said it was for my nutrient sequestering, now it's to develop soil health. It's actually to not only sequester my nitrogen, which I thought I was only going to do, it's sequestering my phosphorus and potassium, my sulfur, all those great ingredients that we need to grow crops, and my goal has changed from the first time I've started it.

So when you get your goal set and then you can talk about seeding rates, the species you want, and the application method. The next thing is very, very important. When you've got your plan of application and it's going to be aerial application, you have to know when you should be putting it on. And in corn, we recommend that the corn is at black layer. That means that the lower leaves are starting to senese, maybe a lot of those leaves are senescing, I should say. So it's opening up the canopy so we get that sunlight in there to get that rubber crop to survive. And as I mentioned a little bit earlier, it's very important to have sun hit that rye or whatever else you might have to get it started. We normally will get it started if we have some rain with it, but the sunlight is key.

And soybeans is another thing we recommend just before leaf drop, but to make this all work with the timing of the applicator when you can get them there and when this is all going to happen, and then the government regulations and their time schedule, sometimes we have gotten to the point where September 9th, our corn is not black layered yet, where our beans are not ready to start dropping leaves yet. And we have tried to talk to the NRCS office to give us a little bit of leeway to be able to adjust those application times. Sometimes they will extend them and sometimes they won't, so just keep that in mind.

And the other thing is to find an experienced applicator. We've been very fortunate to work with the same operation or applicator since the very beginning of 2012. It has changed names, it has been sold to a larger company, but by and by, most of the workers are still there and a lot of the pilots are the same, so we know how things go and their expectations of us and our expectations of them are already known that we've worked through that. The other thing is when you find the applicators, make sure you are calibrated from the very beginning and keep tabs on it. They can change. Your seed size can change, your bulk density will change, all that stuff can change within loads. And to tell you the truth, in the last couple of years, we probably have been less than a half a percent off of what our goal was for applications. So when you talk about that many acres, it's really great that we can get that close.

I also plan around weather forecast. And this is a great thing, we have customers that call us and say, "Hey, it's supposed to rain tomorrow. Can we get that plant flown on today?" And of course that doesn't always happen, but we do look at the weather forecasts and if it's extremely dry, we try to hold off until we see a front that's going to be coming and say it takes us five days to apply, we'll try to get as much as we can done before that rain.

Also, another thing is find a reliable and service-oriented seed supplier because that's important. To be able to work with your applicators, a lot of them now are aligning themselves with retailers and seed suppliers, and they like to work with us, but in our case, I think we have between 150 and 200 customers. So if the aerial applicator has to work with each individual customer, it would take a lot of time and effort on their part, whereas they pull in and we have this all scheduled out, we do all the flight plans and everything for the airplanes so when they pull in, they're ready to go and they don't have to worry about talking to each individual customer.

And then also have an alternate plan in place, and that's true with anything when it comes to cover crops, but especially with aerial application. You may have it set up that we're going to put on two species and one of them was going to be winter kill and all of a sudden we didn't get it applied because of weather by, would be the 9th of September for us. Then we need to go back and change and say, "Well, we're going to put on two species that are non-winter kill." And usually most of the time the NRCS will allow you to do that. So that's what about changing up and have an alternate plan and things don't work.

Now I've talked mostly to producers that are going to be doing this. Now I want to talk to some of the seed suppliers that might be watching this. Hate to give out all the secrets, but we need a lot of people like us to do this, to make this really work across the country to make this cover crop thing work. And the number one thing is to make it as simple and as easy for the applicator as well as the customer. I talked about early in the presentation we were a one-stop shop. On the backside is when we work with the applicator, and we see this is because we take care of them. As you can see in this picture, we have a semi sitting here with a conveyor with a motor on it, and when they use this truck and a tender to fill the planes, they spend no time opening bags, dumping jumble bags or dumping little bags. More and more they tell me about how they hate to go to a certain area of the state where they don't have the setup like this.

Our goal is not to let the airplane sit still and the ground crew has to do hardly anything. If you look here, there's lawn chairs. I don't know what they get paid, but they don't work physically very hard. But we make sure we keep the seed ahead of them. This is not how we started. When we first started, we would bring an electric conveyor, and we had actually a tractor and PTO generator running the conveyor. And now we've got a self-contained, and actually our applicator now, they have their own self-contained conveyors and they have hitches back here and pull them from airports. So we don't have to furnish this anymore, but they really like what we do and how we take care of them. So as an applicator, keep that in mind. Or even if you're a large operator and you're working directly with an applicator, you do the same thing. Keep it as easy and... What do I say? Just make it easy and really trouble-free form.

Now, there's always going to be some problems, but for the most part we really want to have situations like this where aerial application can really, really be well done. And these are two examples. As you can see on the left hand, this is aerial-applied and they're actually no tilling, I think corn into this. No, this would be beans. Excuse me. And this is actually a beautiful stand of aerial application after soybeans harvest. Maybe it gets a bad wrap from some people that a application, but for us, it's a huge part of our business. If we didn't have it, we would not be able to have as many acres covered as quickly and as timely as we need to be.

Mackane Vogel:

Big thanks to Dean Sponheim for today's presentation. The full transcript of the episode will be available at

Many thanks to our sponsor, Go Seed, for helping to make this Cover Crop podcast series possible. And from all of us here at Cover Crop Strategies, I'm Mackane Vogel. Thanks for listening and have a great day.