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Cover crops for cowsCover crops for cows

Soil health benefits of cover crops an added bonus for Honken Farms.

Kevin Schulz

August 1, 2023

3 Min Read
man and woman standing in crop field
STANDING TALL: Dan and Erin Honken use practices such as cover crops and no-till to leave their farm better than when they got it.Kevin Schulz

Dan Honken admits he plants cover crops for his cattle herd to graze after the cash crops are harvested. It didn’t take him long to realize other benefits that cover crops present.

“We have ‘mountains’ here, and we have no washouts,” Honken says of the extreme rolling hills of his farm in the Lonsdale-Faribault area. “I am a big believer in cover crops.”

For the past 10 years, Honken has been planting 450 acres of corn and soybeans into cover crops, using some tillage for the corn, but all the soybeans are no-tilled, planting into cereal rye. “I’d like to get no-till for everything, but we’re not there yet.”

Multiple cover crops are implemented on Honken Farms, including annual rye grass, kale and turnips, with some Kernza also added in.

“Kernza, for a cattle guy, is great; you get the straw, and the cattle can pick through it. You can graze the cattle on it in the spring or the fall, and it just helps the soil,” he says.

Erin Honken adds, “it also brings biodiversity into the operation.”

Starts with the cows

Speaking of diversity, the Honkens run a 140-head cow-calf operation with Angus bulls bred to cows of a variety of breeds.

Dan prefers to no-till-plant cover crops in after the corn crop is harvested; but if fall weather doesn’t cooperate, the cover crops seed is flown on.

“We are proud of what we’re doing here as far as taking care of the land and trying to make it better. We’re really concerned about our soil health out here,” Erin says. “Rain and topsoil are what makes the farm run, and we’re not getting any rain this summer.”

That lack of rain also showcases another benefit of cover crops, as the Honkens believe they add drought resiliency to the soils in dry years.

He is also experimenting with 60-inch corn rows in a project that is funded by a Minnesota Department of Agriculture crop research grant. Alan Kraus, conservation program manager with Clean River Partners, is the principal investigator in this three-year project in which he collaborates with three University of Minnesota researchers. Kraus says this project follows up on research conducted from 2019-21. The Honkens are part of the farm-level research that is happening on four farms in southeastern Minnesota.

“I would love to be able to do 60-inch rows and take earlage off of it, and I’d have a whole bunch of forage for the cattle,” he says. “For me, everything starts with the cows.”

Each year Dan hopes to graze the cattle on all of his ground until the snow flies in the fall.

In addition to the crop acres, the Honkens have 23 acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, adding to their conservation mission. “I want to leave everything better than when I started,” he says.

Blooming business

Though Erin works off the farm as director of human resources at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault, she is an integral part of the farm operation, even with an income generator that brightens other people’s days.

When one thinks of community supported agriculture, thoughts usually turn to fruits and vegetables, but Erin supplies 30 customers with bouquets of flowers every other week between mid-July and the end of September. She also provides flowers for private events, funerals and birthdays, as well as hosting pick-your-own nights “where people can bring their own vase and make their own bouquet,” she says.

Flower beds are spread throughout the farm site, and she has a greenhouse where plants can get a jump-start. A number of raised flower beds are on the farm, using composted cow manure. “That’s my secret ingredient,” she says.

It all starts and ends with the cows.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

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