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Cover crops are new tool in Sloan's conservation tool box

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 10/22/2012 2:57 PM

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BRANDON, Iowa — After Dick Sloan graduated from Iowa State University with a biology degree, his first job took him to an Eastern city.

"But living in a big city was not for me," he said.

He returned home to farm.

"I've always enjoyed the mental and physical challenges of farming, and I'm glad Dad gave me the opportunity," Sloan said.

Clare, his 86-year-old father, said the arrangement worked well for both father and son.

Sloan and his brother, Bob, a computer information analyst at John Deere in Waterloo, bought a farm together down the road from Clare's place in 1980. Sloan now farms 720 acres, which includes Clare's ground. Bob helps as time allows. The family employs a variety of conservation practices including contour farming, narrow-based terraces, grassed waterways, grass filter strips and no-till.

"Dad always practiced conservation," Sloan said. "He taught us the value of protecting what you have."

The latest tool in Sloan's conservation tool box is cover crops.

Working with Sarah Carlson at Practical Farmers of Iowa, he's looking at which cover crop techniques work best on his farm.

Sloan shared experiences from his first year of cover crops at a recent field day at Clare's farm near Brandon. Iowa Learning Farms, the Cedar River Watershed Coalition and Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association hosted the field day.

Sloan is president of the Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association and on the advisory board of the Sustainable Corn Project.

Despite the drought, Sloan, who had a pilot aerial seed cereal rye into standing soybeans and corn last fall, saw positive results.

He sees cover crops as a way to suppress winter annual weeds.

"Nature abhors a vacuum, and if nothing else is growing, weeds will pop in," Sloan said.

Cover crops are a way to build soil organic matter.

"There is a crop growing five months, and there are another seven months when nothing is growing," Sloan said. "Winter rye will germinate at 34 degrees and grows any time the ground is not frozen. It's building organic matter."

Rye's fibrous roots protect against erosion. Cover crops add to the variety of plants growing in the field and increase the bioactivity of the soil.

"When the soil is more active, it breaks down more corn residue," Sloan said. "The rye is absorbing nitrogen, and helping me grow a healthy crop."

A cover crop of crimson or red clover and hairy vetch can potentially add nitrogen to soil, requiring less nutrient application for the next year's corn crop, Sloan said. He is working with PFI on a trial where he seeds oats and crimson clover following soybeans to see if he can reduce nitrogen use.

There are risks with cover crops, Sloan said. It's a challenge to get them established in a dry fall especially when aerial seeding.

He flew 1.5 bushels of cereal rye per acre into standing soybeans and corn. Living 12 miles from the airport, creates additional expense. He recommends talking to neighbors and offering to spray if stray cover crop seed starts growing in their fields.

Sloan is drilling some of his cover crops after harvest this year to make sure he gets a good stand, but he'll also have some aerial seeded.

His seeding cost was $32 per acre including the seed and aerial application last year. Farmers should check with Natural Resources Conservation Service offices to see if cost-share funds areavailable.

"I'm definitely committed to growing cover crops on some of my ground," Sloan said. "Seeing a green farm in the winter is something positive."