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Cover crops: Advice from a new adopter

Cover crops: Advice from a new adopter
Here is why one Indiana farmer adopted cover crops, with an update on what he has learned so far.

Michael Strassburger farms near West Lafayette. For several years, he heard a lot of good things about the long-term benefits that cover crops could offer. But it was three years ago when he finally flipped the switch and gave them a try on his farm.

Strassburger originally adopted the technology during his transition to no-till. He said he had a variety of reasons for giving cover crops a try.

“I was looking to build my long-term soil health and organic matter,” he said. “I definitely started this with long-term goals in mind.”

Farm for future

PICK COVERS CAREFULLY: Duane Drockelman, Ripley County, examines forage radishes, which typically die off during winter. Note the great fall growth of this cover crop. Drockelman is a retired district conservationist.

Strassburger is not alone. This long-term mindset is key, but it has proved challenging with many farmers. Dan Perkins, Jasper County Soil and Water Conservation District specialist, explains why farmers struggle with this.

“The challenge is in the inability to take the long-term view on farm profitability,” says Perkins. “It is pretty clear that cover crops, when implemented as a system on the farm, increase farm profits and productivity. To change the farm system means our mindsets have to be changed. That is hard work.”

Perkins had helped many farmers get started trying cover crops. He’s also an Indiana Certified Crop Adviser.  

Currently, Strassburger plants cover crops on about one-third of his total farm ground. He’s starting to see changes in his soil health and organic matter, but it hasn’t come without challenges.

“My challenge is in the spring, with termination. I’ve had to adapt my planter and figure out how to adjust my management practices,” Strassburger says.

Strassburger used Enivronmental Quality Incentives Program cost-share incentives to help with his initial implementation, and is very happy with the program.

“EQIP helps out a lot,” he says. “They allow me to take financial risks on things I normally wouldn’t. They also help pay for the time spent initially adopting and investing in the technology.”

Start small

Strassburger would recommend that farmers who are interested in trying cover crops start out with a small trial period to get their feet wet with the change in management. He recommends starting with a winterkill variety, as it will be easier to manage and less of a big shift in practices right away.

“Try a small area, avoid aerial seeding, and try a winterkill variety first,” Strassburger recommends as his top three tips to new farmers.

Species that winterkill in most of Indiana include oats and forage radishes. Oats will die off over the winter in most of the Midwest. Radishes and turnips die off as long as temperatures get cold enough to kill them. First-time users need to know that once radishes and turnips are killed and begin to decay, they can give off a strong odor that resembles propane gas. It may get the neighbors excited, but it’s a normal part of the process.

Strassburger has made the decision to continue using cover crops and is hopeful about the long-term benefits of his cover crop implementation.

Wieland is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University.

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