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Cover crops improve soil quality, Brandt says

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 02/24/2014 11:25 PM

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DES MOINES — Dave Brandt started no-till farming in 1971and added cover crops in 1978.

The Carroll, Ohio, farmer has observed how cover crops protect the soil and keep it cool. Cover crops suppress weeds and harmful insects, hold and build soil nutrients and improve soil organic matter.

Brandt was a speaker at last week's cover crop workshops at the Iowa Power Farming Show in Des Moines. Workshops over three days featured cover crop basics, seeding, termination, integrating with livestock as well as in-depth sessions on aerial and high-clearance seeding, trouble-shooting and radish, ryegrass and cereal rye blends.

Brandt farms 1,250 acres raising corn, soybeans, wheat, pumpkins, sweet corn and other vegetables.

He also feeds 50 fat steers and 35 hogs each year. He sells produce and meat to his neighbors.

"I didn't like urbanization until about eight years ago when I realized that urban people have cash," he said.

Brandt plants cereal rye and radishes after corn and plants soybeans the next spring. After soybeans he plants wheat. Once the wheat is harvested, he sows a cover crop blend consisting of up to 15 species, and then plants corn the following spring. To terminate his cover crops, Brandt rolls them flat with a roller.

Farmers interested in cover crops should start with cereal rye planted after corn.

"Cereal rye is the easiest thing we ever use," Brandt said. "You can broadcast it out of a fertilizer spreader."

Brandt likes a thin stand.

"We have 45 to 50 percent clay-based soils, and we have to have sunlight and wind get to the soil," he said.

His soybeans, which are planted after a rye cover crop, have more nodes and the nodes are closer together than with conventional tillage, Brandt said. Yields are 65 to 70 bushels.

"My theory is that cereal rye and rye grass pick up all the loose nitrogen in the soil," Brandt said. "The soybeans produce more nodulation and there is more organic nitrogen fixing."

Brandt's first cover crop mix before corn was hairy vetch and cereal rye. He has since found that while hairy vetch is great for the top of nobs, the soil won't warm in low spots if it is covered with the plant.

Brandt adapted his White planter with soybean and sugar beet plates so that he could plant radishes and Austrian winter peas. The two crops perform better when planted together than either does alone. The plants need six weeks of growth before freezing. Radishes lift the soil 3 to 5 inches, and their taproots push through hard pan.

He uses a High Boy sprayer/seeder for seeding into standing crops, and seeding with an airplane can also be effective.

An eight-way cover crop blend will change the dynamics of the soil two times faster than with a two-species cover crop, Brandt said.

Cover crops have changed Brandt's farm's soil organic matter by 1 percent per year. That means an extra 1,000 pounds of nitrogen in the soil profile for next year. Cover crops have reduced the need for many purchased inputs including commercial fertilizer. The farm uses no insecticide, fungicide or seed treatment.

To learn more about Brandt's farm go to