For producers who are interested in building soil health on their farm, utilizing cover crops can be a good place to start.
Ryan Gibbs, with wife Kristy, owns and operates Gibbsfield Ag and Gibbsfield Farms in Worthington, Iowa. Gibbs started incorporating no-till and cover crops on the farm in 2017. The farm consists of corn, soybeans, alfalfa and cereal rye, and they raise feeder cattle and are contract hog growers for JBS.
Gibbs’ first advice for producers? Decide on your farm goals. “You know I have certain things I do on my operation to reach my goals. My neighbor who doesn’t have livestock has a different operation and different goals,” he says.
Some common goals producers may have for adding cover crops could be to reduce or prevent soil erosion, build soil health, or reduce weed pressures. “You really want to think about what would be a benefit to your operation and your farm’s soil health,” Gibbs says.
Where to start?
Starting a new production practice can seem daunting at the beginning, but Gibbs says the first step is easy. “The first thing I tell customers or anyone who asks is to go get a soil test done so you can see that baseline.”
He recommends Honey Soil Test, Regen Labs or Ward Labs for soil testing. “You’ll get a complete soil analysis on what’s going on and what you have out in your fields,” he says.
“Next, you want to get a good relationship with an agronomist or seed rep to put together a program that fits your operation and goals,” he says. “Talk to other farmers who are doing cover cropping and see what they’re doing. If my neighbor’s crops look better than mine, I want to find out how to do it.”
Once your goals are set, Gibbs says to do some research on your own. “YouTube has a lot of good information, just make sure to take it with a grain of salt. Facebook and other social media can be a good place to see what people are doing too,” he says.
When starting with cover crops, evaluating your available equipment is vital. “When we started, I went though and sold my chisel plow to put that money into my planter to set up correctly,” he says. Older or unused equipment can be sold or modified to fit your farm’s new needs, he says.
Gibbs also advises to try cover crop on a small part of the farm first. “Try it out on a small portion is what I tell guys. You know you can try it out on 10 acres on the back 40 that no one can see from the road, and if it fails, you won’t be out much money,” he says.
And working with a good agronomist can help point producers in the right direction to avoid potential failure. “We learn from our mistakes and learning experiences firsthand so that we can do better next time,” Gibbs says. “I tell everyone I work with or sell seed to how I’d do it if it was on my operation — that if you want success these are the steps you need to take.”