Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

Living cover presents opportunities

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 12/09/2013 1:42 PM

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MINNEAPOLIS — Opportunities exist for agribusiness to move continuous living cover forward.

Rob Myers, a Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture endowed chair, has been evaluating the business opportunities for business services related to cover crop seeding and management. He discussed some of his findings at the Green Lands, Blue Waters conference on Nov. 21.

One opportunity is providing information. Farmers no longer rely on Extension for information, instead they turn to industry consultants to provide information for their farming operation, Myers said.

Myers referenced a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and Conservation Technology Information Center survey done last winter for his farmer data. A total of 759 producers responded. The majority of respondents were from Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

The study found cover crop acreage is increasing with the desired cover crop benefits including soil compaction reduction and a yield boost. Most farmers are planting winter cereals. Other species include brassicas, legumes, annual grasses and multi-species mixtures. It seems the longer a farmer plants cover crops, the more likely that person is to plant a multi-species mix, Myers said.

Data from side-by-side farms shows an increased yield from cover crops in every state except Minnesota, Myers said.

He said ag retailers have the opportunity to sell cover crop seed, provide management advice on cover crops, seed cover crops and provide cover crop termination services.

Seed companies have the opportunity to sell cover crop seed and advise farmers on seed choices.

All kinds of opportunity exist for equipment manufacturers. Farmers need high clearance seeding equipment, Myers said, and planters that can precisely plant multiple seed types at one time.

If cover crops are to take hold across agriculture, industry will need to embrace them, Myers concluded.

What's happening?

In a modification of the round robin table discussion, participants at the Green Lands, Blue Waters conference rotated from room to room to learn about efforts underway in watersheds in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Linda Meschke, executive director of Rural Advantage in south central Minnesota, talked about Elm Creek, one of the pilot watersheds for the Minnesota Agricultural Water Quality Certification program.

The 173,000 acre watershed is home to corn, soybeans and swine, Meschke said.

Efforts to clean up the watershed are farmer-driven, she said.

Karl Hakanson of the Cannon River Watershed Project in southeast Minnesota said he's reached out to farmers through a series of breakfast meetings. Developing relationships with farmers is critical, because if he's not working with farmers he's not doing much for water quality in the Cannon River.

Cara Carper of the SW Badger Resource Conservation and Development Council in Wisconsin said the area is known for steep hills and streams. There are many dairy farmers and retired dairy farmers. The RC&D has recently launched a project to connect landowners with people who have cattle to graze in an effort to keep cattle and continuous cover on the land.

Likewise, in southeast Minnesota the soil and water conservation districts realized they needed to do something to keep pasture and hay on the ground. Six districts came together to apply for a grant to hire a grazing specialist, said Donna Rasmussen, district administrator for the Fillmore County SWCD.

They hired Dean Thomas, a farmer who grazes on his own farm.

Thomas has steered farmers to the Natural Resources Conservation District offices to access Environmental Quality Incentive Program contracts for fencing and water piping for livestock. He's also worked with farmers to plant cover crops. Most recently, his territory was extended north to the Whitewater River Watershed.

Thomas said it's important to treat farmers how he would like to be treated. Every site is different, but he's found that word of mouth is the best way to market conservation.

The hilly regions of southeast Minnesota need cover to hold soil in place, Thomas said. The area has lost a lot of livestock since corn and soybean prices skyrocketed.

In the Boone River Watershed in north central Iowa, a variety of partners have come together to reduce the amount of nitrate exported from the watershed, said Eileen Bader of The Nature Conservancy. The watershed lies in six counties and 85 percent of the landscape is covered in row crops, increasingly more corn-on-corn. The number of cover crops planted in the watershed continues to grow, she said.

In the Upper Sangamon River Watershed in Illinois, Steve John of the Agricultural Watershed Institute said farmers in his area are encouraged to plant perennial crops for both renewable energy and enhanced water quality. The area he works in is extensively drained and 87 percent of the land area is covered in row crops.

What's ahead?

Jim Kleinschmit, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, asked attendees to think about what's beyond the farm bill.

"Are we getting what we want from the farm bill?" he asked.

In general, where farm policy is going doesn't fit the vision the people in the room talked about during their two-day conference. He said they have a pretty good idea what they want from agriculture and how to do that on the ground, but not policy-wise.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has launched a website to build a network and advance the conservation about what comes after the farm bill, if a farm bill is passed this year.

The website can be found at