Jon Bakehouse didn’t jump right into planting cover crops. Instead, he did a lot of research before finally giving it a try several years ago.“We kind of fooled around with it until we became more comfortable with the strategy,”Bakehouse says. “We finally got serious with it a few years ago, and now we plant them ahead of our soybeans.”
Bakehouse farms near Hastings in Mills County, Iowa. Each year he plants about 300 acres of cover crops, with most of that cereal rye. He has tried a few other crops, but the cereal rye works best for his operation.
Bakehouse runs a cow herd on his Southwest Iowa farm, and much of the cereal rye is grazed.He says his goal with cover crops is to improve water infiltration. Bakehouse farms on the Nishnabotna River and says he has several low spots in his fields.“Quite honestly, I got tired of disking up the wet spots,” he says. “We don’t have tile on the farm and it’s pretty flat, and we have a spot that can stay wet for days. We hope that by using cover crops, we would lesson that issue.” Bakehouse uses a no-till drill to seed cover crops following harvest. His sister comes home to run the drill. The past two years, he used a roller crimper to help with production.“We’ve been very dry last two years and found that the layer of residue from the roller actually help keep moisture in the soil,” Bakehouse says.The popularity of cover crops soared for a 3- to 4-year period as farmers took advantage of cost sharing programs, says Mark Licht, Extension field agronomist with Iowa State University.“For a couple years acreage growth with existing adopters was really strong,” he says. “We are still getting some new adopters, but the growth is slower. I don’t know if we have seen a plateau yet, but the growth is much slower now.”Licht estimates 2 to 3 million acres are planted to cover crops annually in Iowa. He says with the drought over much of the state the last two years, it may have been more difficult to get cover crops established. That may have resulted in a decrease in popularity, Licht adds.“Will things pick up once we see a year with quote ‘normal’ precipitation?” Licht asks. “If that happens we could see acreage growth pick up again.”For a time, seed availability was an issue, but he says that is no longer the case.“If we see growth, we’re going to see supplies used up,” Licht says. “You have to decide in the fall how much seed you’re going to need for the following summer, and that makes it difficult.”He says some farmers may be hesitant to try cover crops simply because of the bottom line.“The barrier for some is the return on investment,” Licht says. “But I think over time they could see the benefits, such as less erosion and nutrient loss, and decide it may be worth the expense.”He encourages farmers to take advantage of many cost-share programs that are available not only through the state but the federal government.Bakehouse, who is also a long-time cooperator with Practical Farmers of Iowa, says he is glad he made the move to cover crops and adds he wishes he had done it a few years sooner.“We are seeing way more benefits than we ever dreamed possible,” he says. “It’s really hard to put a pencil to the long-term benefit, but the results tell me it’s been well worth it.”
The National No-Tillage Conference returns January 9-12, 2024!Build and refine your no-till system with dozens of new ideas and connections at the 32nd Annual National No-Tillage Conference in Indianapolis, Ind. Jan. 9-12, 2024. Experience an energizing 4-day agenda featuring inspiring general session speakers, expert-led No-Till Classrooms and collaborative No-Till Roundtables. Plus, Certified Crop Adviser credits will be offered.
This week, check out some advice from Merlin, Ontario no-tiller Blake Vince, on how to go about putting together a multi-species cover crop mix. Stay tuned for an upcoming No-Till Farmer article with more tips and info from Blake Vince regarding best practices for multi-species cover crop mixes.